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$2 million to aid homeless may be reducing need in Westmoreland

When the Westmoreland Coalition on Housing first met 14 years ago, the founding members didn't think homelessness was a problem.

"We thought everybody had a place to stay," said Bill Connolly, director of the Next Steps Supporting Housing program through Westmoreland Community Action. "We've found out how many people struggle with housing in Westmoreland County."

About 80 people representing social service agencies and governmental bodies throughout the county gathered in Hempfield on Wednesday for the coalition's annual meeting to discuss issues facing their groups and their clients.

Connolly said the Homeless Management Information System, an initiative of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has helped to provide solid data on the numbers of homeless people and their needs. The database pulls together client information from 10 organizations in the county to provide a snapshot of the homeless population.

In fiscal year 2010, those 10 agencies served 679 clients from 453 households who needed assistance with housing. In fiscal year 2011, which ended Sept. 30, those numbers dropped to 635 clients from 408 households.

The decrease is significant because, at the same time, about $2.1 million from the federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program was being distributed in the county.

That money was part of a three-year initiative to help people avoid eviction, pay overdue rent or utility bills, receive emergency short-term housing at local hotels and find or re-establish secure housing.

In 2010, it was distributed to 1,260 clients from 502 households. This year, it went to 477 clients from 191 households.

The funds allocated for Westmoreland County have been nearly depleted in 1 12 years, Connolly said.

"But we don't see the rise in homelessness going up as the HPRP monies are going down," he said.

The vast majority of clients served by both programs have sought help only once.

"Many people are staying in place after finding permanent housing or the help they need," he said.

Most of those needing help -- 46 percent in 2010 and 45 percent in 2011 -- last lived in the Greensburg ZIP code. Connolly said that's reflective of the fact that people often move to the county seat for jobs, services and ease of transportation, then need assistance.

But homelessness isn't just an adult issue.

Mary Clark, who coordinates the Homeless Children's Initiative through the Westmoreland Intermediate Unit, said school districts counted 300 homeless students in 2010-11. Most were "doubled-up" by living temporarily with other family members or friends after losing their home. Others were staying in a hotel or motel or spent time in a shelter. Clark said one child was living on a hillside.

Clark said 209 of the students were staying with their parents, while 91 were unaccompanied.

She said the numbers highlight a common misperception of the homeless as a veteran living under a bridge in a big city.

"The fastest-growing segment of the homeless population are single women and their children," Clark said.

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