The members of the team of 16 county officials and volunteers who went on a quest to find homeless people in Chester County last week are to be commended. It was brutally cold that night, but those on the quest stuck it out through the early morning hours to gather data that would eventually make its way to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Their count when the night was over: nine homeless people.
We don’t know if that number is massaged before it is passed along – perhaps multiplied by some constant to arrive at an actual count – perhaps one found homeless person equals 10 who were not found. What we do know, however, is that in a county of half a million people, more than nine of them are homeless.
While it is true that Chester County is the wealthiest in Pennsylvania and probably has fewer homeless than Philadelphia, it is also true that there are plenty of pockets of poverty here, and lots of people who cannot afford to pay for housing. And when you get down to it, for all intents and purposes, any adult who doesn’t have the wherewithal to afford a roof over his or her head should have been among those tallied, even though the team of bean counters didn’t find them.
Housing, even humble housing, is expensive. And even if a worker makes some money, unless it well exceeds $20,000 a year, there is no way that person can afford housing while putting food in his mouth, shoes on his feet and a coat on his back.
Take, for instance, the elderly who have no cash and no job and have bunked in with their adult children – maybe in the extra bedroom or maybe in the attic or cellar. They are among the homeless.
Or consider the agricultural or office workers who are paid at close to minimum wage. They don’t lie down under a bush on a cold night; they find people—friends -- who have a rented room or house, and they plunk a mattress down in their living room and go to sleep. Those people are homeless.
And there are people who work but fall behind on their mortgages, and their homes are foreclosed. In some cases they either move in with relatives or -- worst case – live in their cars.
The late Margaret Valentine, who founded and ran His Mission Homeless Shelter in Kennett Square, didn’t have to go out and count homeless people on a cold night. They came to her. And when the police found people in town who seemed to have no place to lay their heads, they would take them to Margaret, and she would house them in a makeshift bedroom in the basement of the shelter.
Margaret knew where the homeless lived. She knew the guys in the former shanty town down near South Mill. She knew the guys who slept in abandoned trucks. She knew there were more than nine of them; she knew there were hundreds.
She took them blankets and food. She let them eat and shower at her shelter, even though they chose not to stay in her place overnight. She even went out and tried to find them jobs.
She could tell you all kinds of stories, and she didn’t have to go out and root around the bushes on a cold night. Homelessness is among us in many forms.
The quest for the homeless in Chester County last week was most likely useless and sociologically invalid. But, with it all, it raised a little consciousness in the counters and their organizations about how frightening and cold it is to be without a home. And in that, perhaps the project had some value.