A regional advocate for the rights of the homeless says actions by Sugar Notch officials to deny shelter to homeless men may be based upon fear and a lack of knowledge.
About 40 homeless men were scheduled to receive temporary shelter at the Holy Family Roman Catholic church in Sugar Notch for a week beginning Jan. 11. About three dozen churches in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton region each shelter the homeless for one or two weeks a year. Professional staff usually work with, and stay with, the homeless. However, borough zoning officer Carl Alber, apparently acting under Council direction, issued a letter that threatened the church with a $500 fine for each day it housed the homeless. Councilman Herman Balas, a member of the church, said that Council was acting for safety and citizen welfare. The Rev. Joseph Kakareska told the media he has no plans to deny shelter to the homeless for the week. Sugar Notch is a town of about 950 residents, about five miles southwest of Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania.
A public council meeting, Jan. 4, led to a yelling contest among the Council and members of the audience; most of the Council and residents claimed the homeless could pose “problems,” with others claiming the problem had nothing to do with the homeless but with following proper zoning ordinances. However, the church is zoned R-1 (residential) and in a residential area. Council kicked the problem to the Zoning Commission, but indicated that if the church files an appeal, with a $350 fee, it would allow the homeless to stay in the church for a week. It’s an “olive branch,” claimed council president Charlene Tarnalicki. There was no ruling that if the church loses its appeal if it would still be liable for up to a $3,500 fine.
“This is not a zoning issue, but an issue of fear by residents,” says Gary F. Clark, executive director of the Northeast Pennsylvania Homeless Alliance. “Most homeless pose absolutely no threat to any citizen,” says Clark. The homeless, says Clark, often have day jobs, and are sheltered only in evenings. Clark says that with the Recession, more persons have been laid off from jobs they may have had for several years, and have been unable to meet mortgage payments on houses. Council’s concern about the homeless, according to Balas, was that they could be violent or be drug users.
However, Clark says that while some of the homeless may have alcohol- or drug-induced problems, most are “just trying to get by.” About 3.5 million people will be homeless at some point this year, with almost half being children, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. About 16,000 Pennsylvanians are homeless on any given night, according to the Pennsylvania Interagency Council on Homelessness. About one-third of homeless men are veterans, “many with post-traumatic stress disorder that keeps them from a stable life,” Clark says. It is unlikely, he says, that they pose any threat to public safety.
Clark points out that it is unacceptable during the Winter, when snow lies on the ground and temperatures drop into the teens, to have anyone “trying to survive on our streets.” Shelter, says Clark, “is a basic human need and many more problems are created when this need is not met.” The “true measure of a society,” says Clark, “is how it treats its most needy.”
The “movable shelter program,” run by Wilkes-Barre’s non-profit VISION program, and with the support of numerous churches that give temporary shelter and meals to the homeless, has had relatively few problems, says Clark. VISION director Vince Kabacinski told Council he has offers of legal support not only from local organizations but from some as far away as Arizona. “I didn’t ask Sugar Notch to become part of the problem with the ‘not in my backyard’ ” attitude, he said.
On a sign in front of the church is the message, “Jesus was homeless, too.”
WALTER BRASCH is author of 17 books, a syndicated columnist, and professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Humanitarian Service Award. You may contact him through his website, www.walterbrasch.com