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Group looks to help homeless

Since July of last year, the 16-bed Family Services Inc. shelter in Altoona has served

101 individuals, according to Family Services Executive Director Lisa Hann.

But the shelter has turned away 1,327 people for lack of room.

That shortfall between the capacity of the county’s only shelter and the need here shows the scale of a problem that a local group hopes to solve by imitating a State College program called Out of the Cold, in which churches take turns sheltering homeless people at night.

The local group wants to replicate the basics of the Centre County program by Nov. 1, when it begins to get cold in earnest here.

Comprised mainly of social service agency leaders in Blair County, the group is currently seeking faith-based organizations willing and able to offer facilities that can shelter homeless people, along with organizations that can provide volunteers, cots, food and funding, according to Hann.

The program only accepts adult guests, eliminating the need for background checks to identify Megan’s Law offenders, officials in the Blair County group said.

“The numbers (of homeless people) are kind of overwhelming,” said Sonny Consiglio, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Altoona-Johnstown and chairman of the local group, which doesn’t have a formal name.

Moreover, the numbers only take into account “people we’ve had contact with,” and not people in the rural areas of Blair County who “wouldn’t know who to call,” Consiglio said.

The homeless here include single individuals, mothers with children and couples with children, as well as people who’ve lived here for a long time and people passing through, Consiglio said.

Some have been staying in cars, couch surfing or staying in hotels that agencies pay for.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society has spent $400,000 in the past year to house homeless people in hotels, according to one member.

The group will need to do things right from the beginning, because early failure could lead to collapse of the whole idea, Consiglio said.

It will be best to start with just one or two locations, officials said, and resources may need to come from a variety of places.

For instance, one church might have a building that could be used as a shelter, while another might be able to provide volunteers.

Another could offer food, while yet another could donate funds to buy supplies, organizers said.

The Salvation Army’s Altoona Worship and Service Center has shower facilities, said group member Capt. Larry Fulmer. But it can’t provide towels because the center doesn’t have laundry facilities, Fulmer said.

Catholic Charities has a number of towels, said Lisa Fellabaum, outreach liaison for that organization.

BEN Blessed, an outreach that seeks out and helps homeless people several days a week, plans to have a doctor on staff by early summer and hopes to have a counselor available at some point, said one of its principals, Josh Krider.

There is no shortage of resources, Consiglio said.

But identifying them all and coordinating the logistics to make them available at successive shelters will be a challenge, said Consiglio and Brian Durbin, partner in the Durbin Companies.

Getting it done is critical, because there will be a homeless “tsunami,” given the current situation and the escalating costs of housing, Durbin said.

“How are we going to pull all this together,” Durbin asked rhetorically. “And make it seamless?”

It will be a monumental task, he surmised.

Out of the Cold began after a homeless man died in early 2010 while sleeping in a tent in the State College area, according to a Host Site & Volunteer Handbook for the State College program.

The man’s death inspired the executive director of a local interfaith organization to call a meeting of human service agencies and congregations, which led to the launch of the program in November 2011, with four congregations providing host sites.

That grew to 14 congregations by 2019, according to the handbook.

There are currently 24 churches in the program, Consiglio said.

No more than 25 guests are permitted at a site, with a limit of 20 preferred, according to an Out of the Cold handbook.

Guests must do an “intake” the first time they use a shelter and must register daily before 7 p.m., or before they leave the shelter site the night before, according to the handbook.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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