Wednesday, January 20, 2021
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Neighbor to Neighbor: ‘These People Matter’

In an extraordinarily difficult year, we found kindness in every corner in Centre County. Town&Gown’s ‘Neighbor to Neighbor’ series explores some of those stories.

It takes a special kind of heart to help people that most of society does not want to think about, people looking for help with their most basic of needs: a meal when they are hungry, a safe place to rest their head at night, and warmth when they are cold.

It takes a big heart to help, as volunteers, or as staff, during hours when most people would rather be at home with their families, out with their friends, or asleep in their own bed.

While the world is scared and unsure about what the future might bring, these dedicated and caring people continue to help those who need it the most, finding ways to be as safe as possible as they work person-to-person with vulnerable people.

The volunteers, staff, and board members from Out of the Cold: Centre County have just these kinds of hearts. The program, made up of 14 partnering area congregations and seven partnering nonprofit agencies, has grown during this most difficult year to continue to care for the unsheltered people in Centre County, working toward a day when homelessness is a brief and one-time event.

The program operates as an emergency shelter open from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily. The shelter rotates every two to four weeks between 16 locations. During the 2019-2020 season, the program provided overnight shelter for 118 guests, filling 2,473 cots and serving nearly 5,000 meals.

Out of the Cold also operates a permanent day shelter, open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., at The Meeting House, 318 South Atherton Street in State College. Homeless people can go there to keep warm, eat lunch, and receive support from staff to help them get out of their current situation and into more stable housing.

Now, after more than a year of transition, the program continues to grow, as we enter the cold months and COVID-19 numbers rise.

Through her work as local outreach director at Calvery Church, Kendra Gettig has been involved in the program for more than 10 years and currently serves as the chair of its board of directors.

She says in September 2019, just before the cold weather came in, the program was dealt a serious blow when its first program manager, Rebecca Romig, suddenly passed away. Romig was well known for her volunteer work with the homeless population and as a chaplain in the Centre County Correctional Facility.

“Beckie had huge heart for people that were oftentimes overlooked,” says Gettig. “She recognized that there was an unmet need in our community for this type of shelter. There are a lot of other shelters in our community that do great work, but I think for people that are struggling with mental health or substance abuse, there just aren’t many spaces for them. And Out of the Cold spends a lot of time at that intersection of incarceration, mental health, and substance abuse. So, by nature of her work in the jail, Out of the Cold was a natural fit for her.”

Without Romig leading the charge, the program had to quickly find answers just two weeks before the 2019 season was about to begin.

“We just carried on. A lot of board members and volunteers stepped up during those initial weeks to help the program move on,” says Gettig. The program eventually filled the void left by Romig’s passing by hiring two staff members, and it had successful winter.

Then, as the cold season was winding down early last spring, COVID caused other challenges.

“Immediately in the spring, when COVID started, our numbers went through the roof,” Gettig says.

The reasons for the large increase are hard to pinpoint. “There is not a lot of rhyme or reason for it; everybody’s story is a little different,” she says.

One cause is that many people were living with someone who may have had health concerns, leaving them to feel unsafe from a potential coronavirus exposure.

“We had one guy who was living with an elderly couple. He was coming in and out because of work, and they didn’t feel comfortable with him staying there,” says Gettig.

She also refers to growing evidence that mental health concerns and substance abuse have increased during the pandemic.

“I think as those things increase, family conflict increases, or you do something to get evicted from your apartment; so I generally think that if people were struggling in general, that makes them become housing insecure,” says Gettig.

The increased need at the beginning of the pandemic came along with concerns from volunteers who may have health issues of their own.

“It has been much harder for us to find volunteers. Understandably, I think people are hesitant to spend time with a group full of people they don’t know at this point,” Gettig says.

An outpouring of support

To continue, the program, which in the past was almost entirely volunteer-driven, hired more staff. Thanks to huge community support, it now has a staff of seven.

“When COVID first started in the spring, we did our first online fundraiser and just had an outpouring of support, so we have found the community to be incredibly generous,” says Gettig.

Beyond financial support, people drop off clothing, masks, and other items that the shelter needs.

Many dedicated volunteers continue to be a big part of the program, providing support in a variety of ways. Volunteers who are not comfortable being in close proximity with others are finding other ways to help, says Gettig, by making meals, setting up, and providing other supports.

The overnight shelter previously operated only from October to May, but as the pandemic dragged on, leaders decided to continue operating all year long in 2020.

“We felt like having 20 to 30 unsheltered people was a risk to the community, and so we worked pretty hard to find the required funding as well as the host sites to have a year-round program,” Gettig says. “We hope that continues; that is certainly our goal for this year.”

Besides the overnight group shelter that hosts 15 to 20 people each night, the program also provides hotel rooms for about fives guest per night. Most of this funding was provided by an outside source.

“The reason we have people in hotels is that they are generally older, with some health problems, and we just feel like with the risk of COVID that a group shelter isn’t the best option for them,” says Gettig.

As it gets colder, Gettig says the staff will worry even more about the clients they serve and that gap between when the day shelter closes and the evening shelter opens.

“We hope to hire more staff so we can close that gap a bit and have our day shelter open longer,” she says.

On top of all these changes, the program also opened its first transitional apartment this year, providing a place for guests to take that next step of living on their own with the support of the program. For staff and volunteers, it is a lot to handle: a pandemic, people struggling with mental health and addiction, and now the coming cold weather. Seeing so much struggle can take its toll on even the most dedicated people.

“It sometimes feels like our guests have a lot of barriers and challenges. I think that can be overwhelming for our staff team, but I think they have done a great job. They live each day at a time and get as much done as they can. Then they start over the next day,” says Gettig.

All the hard days and long nights spent worrying about their guests are worth it to Gettig, whose faith is a driving force in her work.

“I think these people matter. I think they need an advocate and I care deeply about being an advocate for people who don’t otherwise have one. I think homeless and housing insecurity is a huge problem in our town that oftentimes goes unseen, so I love the opportunity to shed some light on that,” says Gettig.

And while there have been highs and lows this year, Gettig says the successes are what keep those kind hearts out there helping.

“I think there was a month when six or seven of our guests transitioned into permanent housing and they were able to get steady jobs and incomes. They are now living independently, which is very exciting,” says Gettig. “We are still in touch with them, making sure that they are doing what they need to do to stay in those places, but in many ways, they are thriving, which is really exciting.”