Homelessness is an unimaginable experience for most people, but one of the many harsh lessons taught by COVID-19 is that, under certain unexpected circumstances, it can victimize anybody. When it happens in Bucks County, Family Service is here to help via the Bucks County Emergency Homeless Shelter in Levittown and caring staff members like Marcus Brown, shelter operations manager, and his colleague Lisa Mangiola, shelter nurse.
Since March 2020, the shelter has seen its numbers increase dramatically, from an average of 75 residents in a given day, to approximately 100. Fortunately, the spike in residency demand has been met by Family Service through innovative ‘pivots,’ such as a contractual agreement with a nearby hotel and the addition of two grant-funded modular homes on the shelter property.
As Brown and Mangiola explain, despite these accommodations, there is still a large group of people who, for various reasons, continue to reside in the elements outdoors. Family Service does its best to care for this population by regularly delivering meals and resources, as well as working with partner agencies and their Street Outreach Team to ensure effective coordination of services for individuals experiencing homelessness. In addition, utilizing a federally established system known as a PIT (Point-in-Time) Count brings awareness to the issue of homelessness.
PIT is a count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness on a given night in January that HUD requires each Continuum of Care (CoC) nationwide to conduct annually. Family Service is an active member of the Housing Continuum of Care of Bucks County and participates in the annual PIT count. Once a PIT Count is complete, immediate action is taken for those determined to be in imminent danger, and shared with the appropriate entities in an effort to further support those in need.
The two colleagues recently volunteered to assist with the PIT Count between 8:30 p.m. and 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 25 (a night during which the thermometer plummeted to 18 degrees Fahrenheit). It was a chilling but rewarding experience on many levels.
“I was completely blind to the conditions our homeless individuals lived in throughout Bucks County,” recalls Brown. “We know they are sleeping outside, but I did not know what a homeless encampment looked like. In my job, I get to be a part of the [shelter] intake process and their journey to stability. However, I never get to see the ‘before the shelter’ image per se. This experience opened my eyes to their ways of survival.”
In her position, Mangiola often conducts wellness checks at the encampments during the day, but she found that being there after dark was an entirely different experience.
“At one point during the night, I remember thinking to myself that I just wanted to be in my nice warm bed, and knowing that was not an option for these individuals was truly eye opening,” says Mangiola. “Walking through the woods with the light leading the way, if you turn around, behind you it is pitch black, scary and you can become disoriented.”
Brown was also alarmed with the living conditions that exist outdoors.
“The wind at times felt sharp and brutal as it hit the area of my face that was exposed,” notes Brown. “Although I was bundled up with a heavy coat, a vest, long sleeves and gloves, walking through the iced woods was not a regular hike through a path and I was freezing.”
In spite of the icy conditions, Brown said that every person he met was upbeat, pleasant and grateful to see them: “The individuals we met in the woods all had positive attitudes to the resources we offered, the food we gave and the hand warmers we were able to provide.”
Mangiola believes that her career as a nurse plays a significant role in how she is received among the street homeless.
“I am available to shelter clients to discuss medical needs, evaluate them when they are not feeling well and set up appointments when necessary,” said Mangiola. “For the homeless population that does not have shelter, these simple tasks become difficult, so I wanted the opportunity to see what medical issues some of the population is dealing with, or more importantly not dealing with.”
Both Brown and Mangiola believe that this was a unique and humbling opportunity, for which they have gained a previously unrealized perspective.
Says Brown, “I’m happy to be a part of this journey, as we help and continue to usher individuals into a better place physically and mentally.”
Mangiola adds, “I want these folks to see my face and see that I am willing to come to them. I want them to know that they have someone they can trust and turn to if there is a medical issue.”
Director of Housing Services Murielle Kelly agrees with this approach.
“Individuals experiencing homelessness want society to see them as people, not as a stigma or a problem,” said Kelly. “They are people who are going through a tough time, and they need our support.”