Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Saturday, October 6, 2012
Finding people who don't want to be found
Posted: Sunday, January 30, 2011
Behind a Warminster industrial complex, a band of volunteers followed footprints into the snowy woods searching for suburban ghosts.
After five minutes, they saw what appeared to be a small shack of wood pallets covered with rubber tarps. The structure was the first solid evidence that volunteers have found that people in Central Bucks are living outdoors in the three years since the county started counting the so-called "unsheltered" homeless.
"Hello! Anybody home?" Ralph Nattans, a housing specialist with Bucks County Children and Youth Social Services, yelled as the group approached.
Deborah Perry Neidhardt writes a note to a shelter resident
"We're here to help."
Every January, Bucks County sends employees and volunteers to count the homeless who live outdoors. The data, along with the number of homeless living in county shelters, are reported annually to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as part of a national initiative to assess the extent and characteristics of homelessness in the U.S.
Bucks County receives about $1.1 million annually in funding for the homeless, including federal and state emergency shelter grants and homelessness prevention programs. The homeless population here overall grew 17 percent (from 489 to 572) between 2008 and last year, according to county records.
But until three years ago, the county counted only the people who lived in emergency shelters and transitional housing programs.
Before 2009, the county relied on anecdotal information from social service agencies about the number of people living outside. Once teams started identifying the homeless living on the streets, the numbers reported to HUD jumped from four in 2008 to 34 in 2009.
The 2011 preliminary "unsheltered" count conducted last week found at least 29 people living outdoors - all but five in Lower Bucks - according to Deborah Perry-Neidhardt. She's the housing specialist for the county's behavior health office who led the Central Bucks survey team.
The number is the same as last year, but Perry-Neidhardt also pointed out that at least four homeless people have died since last year's count and one is in Bucks County Prison facing murder charges.
The number of unsheltered homeless appears relatively stable, said Scott Griffith of the county's Community and Business Development office. But no one knows every place where they congregate.
The suburban homeless don't want to be found, advocates say. They tend to camp in heavily wooded areas. They sleep in cars or train shelters. Their lives are littered with bad choices. Addiction, abuse, jail and mental illness are common themes.
"If you're spending all your energy out surviving, you don't have time to deal with getting welfare, Social Security, benefits or food stamps," said Keith Smothers, case management coordinator for Penndel Mental Health.
Butch Huffman, who has been homeless for eight years, said the number living outside is closer to 40. A bread delivery guy whom Huffman calls "Stroehmann Dave" told him he drops off leftover loaves at six area camps.
On Tuesday, Huffman acted as a guide for Smothers and Allen Johnson, a facilitator with the Reach Out Foundation, a Morrisville drop-in center for people with behavioral health issues.
The Lower Bucks survey team started its search behind a Bristol Township shopping center, a trek that required trudging through calf-high snow, climbing up slippery and trash-packed hills and treading carefully between downed tree branches and sticker bushes.
Eventually, they reach a cement road that leads to the camps. Before long, the leafless trees revealed what appeared to be a tent.
"Coming in!" Johnson shouted as he entered the camp where Kim and Becky Olenchock had lived.
For two years, Johnson had tried unsuccessfully to get the mother and daughter to seek shelter inside. Now Becky Olenchock, 24, sits in Bucks County Prison awaiting trial for allegedly murdering her 44-year-old mother in October. Prosecutors say the two had a falling-out after Kim refused to move to Tennessee with Becky.
Their once tidy multi-tent camp had deteriorated.
The glass top dining room table was gone, along with the set of Adirondack chairs, and propane-powered hotplate. The pantry shelves were facedown. Plastic storage bins were overturned and appeared to have been rifled through. Two tents were torn and had collapsed under snow.
No one lives here, Johnson concluded. The team moved on.
Nearby, the team found a small tent that was half collapsed. Inside was a bare mattress covered with a blanket of snow; there was also a pair of heavy boots, which Huffman said meant that someone is coming back, eventually.
Deeper in the woods were the remains of other camps, but no people were found.
At the next stop, Huffman knew someone was home.
Home For Now
The second camp is where Huffman lives and sleeps on the nights when the county has no Code Blue declaration. That's when designated Lower Bucks churches open to the homeless once the forecast calls for two consecutive days or nights of temperatures below 20 degrees.
So far this year, the county has declared four Code Blues; the most recent on Jan. 21 has been extended through Tuesday. Last week, at least 20 people a night sought refuge at the host church in Middletown.
About 20 people live in Huffman's camp, where at least a half-dozen tents and other structures dot the clearing. Not everyone was home when the counters called. And some people wouldn't come out of their tents.
The first person the team saw was John, a clean-cut man bundled in a heavy coat and purple Minnesota Vikings track pants. He has been homeless for about two years.
The survey team seeks basic information, including age, how long the people have been homeless and whether they have from medical problems. Names are optional. They also pass out information about social service programs and ask if the homeless would like food, warm clothes and/or shelter.
John refuses indoor shelter during Code Blue nights. He has a kerosene heater in his tent, so he says he's OK. The former fireman said he doesn't worry about the combination of flammable fluid in the enclosed cloth structure.
The camp is a good place for people like him, who are looking to start over, John said.
"It's a safe environment. It may not be the best environment, but to get back on your feet (it works)," John said.
Next the team meets Larry, who shares a one-room wood shack with his wife. The couple used to live near the Olenchocks, but moved into the larger camp not long ago.
How old are you, man?" Smothers asked as he jotted answers on a clipboard.
"Too old," Larry said.
"Do you consider this your home?"
Bill Yates is 22. He has lived in the woods for two years, but goes inside on Code Blue nights. Before that, it was jail. Before that, it was foster care.
He told Smothers the court ordered him to take his medications, but he has no health insurance or money. Smothers told Yates he can help get him get the medications he needs.
Yates said he'd like to find a job, save money and get an apartment, maybe a mobile home.
"I don't care if it's a shed," he said. "It's something."
Someone is Inside
Back in the woods behind a Warminster industrial park, the Central Bucks team cautiously approached a wood shack. Ralph Nattans peeked inside.
He found a bare, dry, mattress topped with neatly laid blankets. Next to the mattress were pillows, clothing and a desk chair. A worn American flag hung in a tree that the small shack was strapped to.
The volunteers were sure someone is - or was - living here.
Perry-Neidhardt from the county's behavior health office, left a handwritten note explaining who the counters were, and why they stopped, along with a new blanket and a card listing local social service agency contacts.
Finding the homeless in Central Bucks is a challenge, county officials said. Usually the tips they get are dead ends. Last year, the Central Bucks team had no leads to investigate, so it surveyed people at the Lower Bucks Code Blue site.
This year, the team received four tips involving sightings of homeless people, including a man with a ponytail scavenging Doylestown Dumpsters for food.
Neighbors reported that a woman was living in a tent in the woods not far from the Bucks County Courthouse in downtown Doylestown. So for a second time Tuesday, the Central Bucks survey group navigated a snow-packed wooded lot, this time without a visible path to follow.
M.L.S. who has been homeless more than 15 years
They wondered if it was another dead end. Then someone saw what looked like a small tent. Someone was inside.
Slowly, volunteers approached the woman, who crawled out of the one-person tent packed tight with blankets. The volunteers identified themselves, explained why they were there. Can they ask her some questions?
The woman agreed, but wouldn't give her name. She did give her initials - M.L.S.
She is 51; homeless since she was 32. She grew up in nearby Chalfont. She's a Central Bucks graduate. Except for a couple of years in Arizona, she has always lived in Central Bucks. She has been in these woods on and off for years, she said.
She has no children. No health problems. She's a former client of the Lenape Valley Foundation, a behavioral health center.
Yes, she said, she was open to looking at alternative housing, but she wasn't promising anything. She's had bad public housing experiences in the past.
No, she told volunteers, she doesn't need anything. Neighbors bring her food, coffee and tea, too. She said she wasn't that cold, but accepted the blanket Perry-Neidhardt offered her.
"I feel sad for her," Perry-Neidhardt said.
"I can't believe she hasn't frozen," Nattans added.