Addressing the housing crisis in Westmoreland County
Staff at The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County knew that a lack of emergency shelter beds was a significant issue, but it wasn’t until they began checking in with nonprofits and community advocates that the full scope of the problem became clear.
“We heard over and over from nonprofit leaders that if we wanted to improve conditions for the most vulnerable county residents, we had to invest in efforts to address homelessness and housing insecurity,” says CFWC Executive Director Phil Koch. “People without housing are clearly the most vulnerable and it hit us like a lightning bolt that we aren’t doing enough to help them.”
Though the county has a population of 365,000, it has only 69 emergency shelter beds available, making it the poorest performing county of its size in providing shelter options.
And since the available beds are designated for men, women and families, the situation is even more dire for youth facing homelessness. Pennsylvania’s Education Children & Youth Experiencing Homelessness program estimates that there are about 410 teens in Westmoreland County who don’t have a place to live. That need far outpaces beds at the handful of group homes that provide youth shelter. Philadelphia-based, Bridge2Home, which helps young people find shelter with family or friends, found that eight young people in Westmoreland county were referred to the program in 2019, but only three host families were available that year.
CFWC made its largest grant, $40,000, in 2019, to Latrobe-based Union Mission, which provides emergency shelter and support services to men facing homelessness. CFWC has also encouraged donors to support Union Mission through their donor-advised funds. Since 2017, the Foundation and its donors have awarded $161,500 to the Mission.
According to its Executive Director Dan Carney, homelessness occurs when natural supports break down. These are people and institutions such as family and friends, school or workplace, that allow people to remain successful. When difficult circumstances, such as divorce, health issues or job loss happen at once, the safety net of natural supports can unravel.
“When you look at the data, you see that 97% of people with addictions are housed, 88% of people with mental health issues are housed. But if a person wears out his welcome, it’s not the substance abuse that results in homelessness. It’s when people have exhausted their natural support systems that homelessness occurs,” says Carney.
That’s what happened to Frank Yaniga, 57, of Westmoreland County. Six years ago, he was a successful information technology professional working full-time on government contracts in Washington, DC. With a bachelor’s degree in engineering technology, he made a six-figure salary and traveled the world for his job. When that contract ended in 2014, rather than looking for his next IT assignment, Yaniga decided to move back to western Pennsylvania to care for his aging parents.
That decision changed everything.
His parents, then in their 70s and 80s, were both recovering alcoholics. While neither had taken a drink in decades, their relationship was contentious, just as it had been when Yaniga first left home in his early 20s. “I couldn’t believe that all those years of therapy hadn’t led them to forgiveness, but to animosity,” Yaniga says. The situation, coupled with failed personal relationships, plunged him into hopelessness and he resolved to end his life. He gave away everything he owned.
“I felt that I was a failure and that everything was my fault. I traveled into the wilderness with no possessions or sustenance. My intention was to die in the middle of nowhere, with no traces other than my bones left behind,” Yaniga says.
By the grace of God, as Yaniga tells it, he was discovered collapsed on the roadside by a local priest who connected him to mental health services. Those providers connected him to human services. After months in residential treatment, Yaniga was ready to come home and reestablish his life, but he discovered how few options there are for people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity in rural Pennsylvania.
One of the few shelters is Union Mission, which provided him with two weeks of emergency shelter and then temporary supportive housing to help him establish a stable and self-sufficient home life. The Mission also provides security deposits and other short-term financial supports, ongoing housing subsidies and case management services to help people transition as quickly as possible from homelessness to permanent housing. The nonprofit also offers permanent supportive housing for people who, because of significant mental and physical illness and substance abuse, have experienced more than a year of homelessness over a three-year period.
“We’re here to provide whatever they need and to help them learn self-sufficiency while in their own homes. This allows people to live as normally as you or me in an environment that is theirs, where they can practice life skills while they are learning them,” says Carney.
Union Mission has taken a more active role addressing homelessness and housing insecurity in the county and, with CFWC, has resurrected the Westmoreland Commission on Housing, which brings together stakeholders to plan and coordinate services. The two organizations are advocating with the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania and the Blackburn Center, both based in Greensburg, for a county-wide scan of how well human service providers are meeting residents’ basic needs.
Carney also chairs the Coordinated Entry Committee of One by One, a 20-county coalition of housing and homeless stakeholders. The work of the committee is to develop a coordinated community-based process of identifying needs and building an integrated system of housing and services that addresses those needs.
“CFWC has been a good connector, getting us out of our silos to understand needs as broadly as possible, and collaborating with other organizations to have a better, strategic impact,” says Carney.
As a result of the collaboration, advocates are now working directly with the Housing Authority of Westmoreland County, fundraising together and sharing management responsibilities for a new shelter that the county is building on property donated by Union Mission.
This combination of practical collaboration and intense, one-on-one case management works exceptionally well: Union Mission sees only 8% of its clients return to homelessness, as compared with the national average of 44%.
Frank Yaniga is among those success stories. Since 2016, he has been working full-time in IT. He’s worked hard to reconnect with loved ones. Yaniga also spends summers and weekends restoring his grandparents’ homestead in rural Crawford County.
“I’m out on the property as soon as the sun rises and I stay out there working until the sun sets,” he says. “Just being out there in a relationship with nature and God and remembering my grandparents is the best therapy of any I’ve done.”
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