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Advocates discuss homelessness in the Lehigh Valley


Special to The Press

American Relief Act Funds are giving local housing for homeless advocates hope for funding their plans.

Rob Nicolella, executive director of the Diocese of Allentown Catholic Charities, told Lehigh County commissioners during a Zoom meeting on April 28 American Rescue Act money could help alleviate the lack of housing for homeless residents of Lehigh County.

The American Rescue Act is a $1.9-trillion economic stimulus bill passed by the Congress and signed into law March 11.

“We all recognize the need to do more,” Nicolella said.

He is also on the Lehigh Valley Regional Homeless Advisory Board.

“LVRHAB is a local collaborative to work with those HUD [American Rescue Act] funds,” Nicolella said. “Many of these funds go into the various nonprofits and entities that you will be hearing from and also which are all going to be coming to the county level.”

Nicolella said homelessness is just one very visible symptom of weakness in the broader housing system.

“If we want to help our unsheltered neighbors, we need to talk about affordable housing and how insufficient the supply is to meet existing needs,” Nicolella said. “Some of these issues have felt impossible to tackle, but that has changed with the American Rescue Plan.”

Nicolella said Lehigh County had 749 enrollments in LVRHAB’s program in 2020.

He said 58 percent of those households were “literally homeless.” Thirty-seven percent were families with children and 19 percent were fleeing domestic violence.

“We want to be the best collaborative partner with county and [Allentown] City officials in implementing plans to assist people at risk of experiencing homelessness,” Nicolella said.

He said LVRHAB shares many of the same goals as the Allentown Commission on the Homeless.

“The biggest gap is in rapid rehousing for families who do not have significant health problems, behavioral problems or drug and alcohol problems. Lack of safe and affordable units [housing] is a fundamental challenge for many programs.”

Nicolella said proven strategies to solve this problem include housing blight remediation, landlord engagement and access to subsidies and housing vouchers.

Marc Rittle, executive director for New Bethany Ministries and also on the governor’s board of the LVRHAB, next briefed commissioners.

“New Bethany Ministries is located in Bethlehem, but we also have properties in Coplay and Allentown,” Rittle said.

“A lot of people spend time getting very creative about how to solve the homeless crisis and at the very end of it all, transitional strategies don’t work nearly as nice as just getting people into homes,” Rittle said. “All you want to do is find a way to house people and you combine that with services and case management and you can do that at same time as putting people into a home. That’s the housing first strategy.”

He described the normal interim strategies used by agencies between the point of identifying a family or person in a state of homelessness to the goal of getting them housed as potential “fail points.”

“That’s why we support the strategy of ‘housing first,’” Rittle said, adding landlords and property owners are a key part of the solution.

“We are developing networks of landlords so we can use this process of getting people into homes successfully.”

Rittle briefed commissioners on strategies New Bethany Ministries supports including improving access to emergency shelters.

“In the Lehigh Valley, we have three winter emergency shelters,” Rittle said.

There are more opportunities for single men to go into emergency shelters that any one else, according to Rittle.

“For $200,000 we can provide 3,000 nights of safe, appropriate and sanitary emergency shelter for households experiencing homelessness.” The cost is about $67 per night.

Rittle said the Allenwood Motel, Motel 8 and Rodeway Inn are possible partners in the proposal.

Rittle said LVRHAB has placed 60 households into local motels and provided case management for the families.

Jessica Elliott, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley, said her nonprofit could rehabilitate 50 blighted units or homes for $5 million. This would put the estimated cost per rehabilitated unit at $85,000, which could then be owned through a land bank and managed by nonprofits.

Elliot said their program’s success rate was very high, with only one family in 33 years needing to go through foreclosure.

She said safe housing can also be arranged through “engagement” or cooperation with landlords.

“A rapid rehousing rental subsidy can house a family of four in a three-bedroom unit for $1,352 per month or one or two-bedroom unit for $1,048 [per month],” Elliott said.

For families needing partial subsidies costs range from $300 to $600 per month.

“For $250,000 we could make … [housing] for at least 15-20 families for a year,” Elliott said. “For $1.7 million, Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley can “create 25 new units of permanent, safe, healthy housing for vulnerable residents of Lehigh County and benefit the broader community by restoring a nuisance property.”

Lehigh County Commissioner Geoff Brace asked if the same presentation was being made to other local governmental authorities.

“Lehigh County is getting $72 million and other local governments are getting up to $10 million [in American Rescue Act money],” Brace said.

Nicolella said the LVRHAB presentation had been made to the City of Allentown and plans are to present to other local government leaders in Lehigh and Northampton counties.

Lehigh County Commissioner Geoff Brace asks LVRHAB representative Rob Nicolella if the same presentation is being made to other local governmental authorities. PRESS PHOTO By Douglas Graves
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Rob Nicolella Executive Director of Diocese of Allentown Catholic Charities
New Bethany Ministries Executive Director Marc Rittle CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS
Jessica Elliott executive director Habitat for Humanity of the Lehigh Valley