By Lillian Bernstein
Over the past year, the Commission on Homelessness has seen lower attendance rates at each monthly meeting. As Allentown’s city officials struggle to find a clear path towards ending homelessness, we look at the now defunct Commission to End Chronic Homelessness to help understand where we might go next.
Former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski established the Commission to End Chronic Homelessness in 2006 with a goal of ending chronic homelessness in 10 years. The Commission was co-chaired by First Lady Lisa Pawlowski and Reverend Dr. Christine Nelson, formerly from the Lehigh County Conference of Churches.
After months of drafting, the Commission to End Chronic Homelessness (CECH) published their Plan to End Chronic Homelessness by 2017. The report outlined several objectives, including developing affordable housing, improving access to the identification needed to enter shelters, mental health services, drug and alcohol support, medical/dental care, and employment and vocational support services. They also aimed to improve rental education, rental assistance and eviction prevention services.
Mayor Pawlowski claimed “progress is being made” in the city’s path towards combating homelessness. In their annual report, CECH said they worked to make eviction notices include notifications of rental assistance and mediation services. They also worked on creating a methodology for closing homeless encampments and compiled resources for the unhoused population.
According to their annual report, CECH improved the rental assistance program to support 269 families. They also improved case management protocol, collaborated with rental programs, and closed two homeless encampments.
In 2010, CECH closed an encampment under the Eighth Street bridge. Many of the unhoused people were struggling with drug addiction and mental illness, and CECH attempted to connect individuals with case workers, although there was seemingly no follow-up regarding these unhoused folks and their path to housing.
Allentown officials acknowledged a lack of collaboration between city council and the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners. They attempted to bridge the divide by each adding a member to CECH.
CECH was absorbed into the Lehigh Valley Regional Homeless Advisory Board (LVRHAB), one of five boards that comprise the Eastern Pennsylvania Continuum of Care. Mandated by HUD and tasked with conducting their annual survey, the Continuum of Care program has access to both data-gathering resources and funding opportunities through HUD. The Eastern Pennsylvania Continuum of Care Governing Board oversees the Coordinated Entry System, which coordinates and tracks entries into the housing service system. At the time of the merge, LVRHAB helped create a new warming station in Allentown.
Examining this timeline, specific problems emerge – a lack of collaboration between different government agencies, encampment closures with no evident housing placement, vague descriptions of “improvement” of services without clear actions and results.
The current administration has signaled they are focusing on data-informed decision making. Moving forward, the city needs to go beyond data collection and analysis to create a unified vision for the future, bridging the gap between public and non-profit homeless services, between branches inside our city government, and between local and county agencies.