Some entrenched homeless camps hide in plain sight
CROYDON, Pa. (AP) — A quiver of anger crept into James Fonde’s voice as he surveyed the bleak, littered patch of woods where his mother’s life ended, an overlooked corner of Croydon between Route 13 and a residential neighborhood.
“She wasn’t supposed to die back here,” he said. “I hate it when people say this is God’s plan. His plan was for her to die here, in the mud by a tree? Don’t tell me that.”
A few feet away, his brother, Brian Winder, sat on a stump, lit a cigarette, and hung his head in silence. Their mother, Beverly Winder, died on that spot last month when a storm-damaged tree Winder was cutting down struck another as it fell, changing direction and landing on her.
Her death - which authorities have ruled an accident - cast a public spotlight on the clandestine homeless camps spread throughout lower Bucks County. Longtime advocates say attempts in recent years to break up the larger, more visible enclaves have made an already vulnerable population ever more so. Smaller cells of men and women now push deeper into the woods in undeveloped areas. Yet they’re still hidden in plain sight, sometimes just yards from local highways or businesses, either until someone spots them and complains, or, as with Beverly Winder, tragedy strikes.
And then they scatter, moving on to another secluded location.
Bucks County officials, in their efforts to aid the homeless, face a massive volume of requests for aid, and the county’s only emergency shelter, which has just 82 beds, routinely operates at or beyond capacity.
That challenge is not unique to Bucks County, or even to Pennsylvania, officials say. There are simply not enough resources.
“We do our best. There are wait lists all around the country, because it’s difficult to eliminate homelessness,” said Jeff Fields, director of the county’s Department of Housing. “And if someone is not interested in engaging with us, our street outreach teams keep tabs on them, and stay in touch for when they’re ready to get service.”
Fields said the county has taken a new approach this year, switching its focus to helping the homeless move into available housing sooner. But those efforts are subject to the whim of the private market, and at the moment, there is little vacant housing in Bucks, he said.
Officially, street-level homelessness in the county is down, according to the most recent federal Point in Time survey, conducted in January. It’s a universal metric, measured by volunteer workers who go to shelters, street corners, and other areas where homeless people congregate, Fields said.
The 2018 survey counted 397 people, down from 517 the previous year. But that drop followed five years of steadily rising numbers.
To put it plainly, Jay Kurko doesn’t buy that. He would know.
“I see new faces, a lot of new faces,” he said recently. “And there are people we’re not reaching, people we don’t even know about.
“People can be staying anywhere,” he added. “Anywhere you see a patch of woods, there’s a good chance someone is living back there.”
For four years, Kurko has scoured the backwoods and gullies of the county as a street outreach worker for Advocates for the Homeless and Those in Need, a nonprofit in lower Bucks that forms one of the pillars of the county’s response to homelessness.
A more accurate count of the current population, he argues, is the number of people who use the group’s annual Code Blue shelters, churches that open their doors overnight in the winter when temperatures dip below 20 degrees. Those statistics show that the number of people using Code Blue shelters has stayed relatively steady, but that they are returning to the temporary shelters more often.
When the camps were larger, like the fabled “Tent City” behind Lower Bucks Hospital that was dissolved by county park rangers in 2012, it was easy to track where the homeless were staying, Kurko said. Now, he relies on word of mouth, piecing together whispers of information gleaned during conversations on Code Blue nights and at community meals.
It’s no accident, he says, that quantifying the number of homeless people is difficult.
“Generally, society doesn’t have a sympathetic heart for these people, and they know that,” he said. “They’re harmless. They feel they don’t fit, that they can’t contribute. And they just want to be left alone.”
Some of the men and women in these camps eventually “get tired” and take him and other outreach workers up on their offer, he said. But sometimes, even self-determination isn’t enough.
Brian Winder understands that. His mother left behind detailed notebooks, their pages filled with names, phone numbers, and appointments with aid groups — resources she was aggressively pursuing at the time of her death.
Poverty gnawed at the Winder family all of Brian’s life. He and his brother spent their childhoods bouncing around to different apartments. Winder’s father committed suicide when Brian was an infant. Fonde’s father was reported missing and never found.
Beverly Winder purchased a house when the two brothers were in high school, but lost it to bankruptcy 10 years later, Fonde said. She found places to stay here and there, most recently living with a longtime family friend in Northeast Philadelphia while working at nearby Redner’s supermarket.
But there was friction in that relationship, and the friend kicked Beverly out this summer. Without a place to stay nearby, she lost her job.
Fonde, who lost his job installing fiberglass insulation in August when his car broke down and he couldn’t get to work, spent his last paycheck paying for a room for her at a Red Roof Inn. Now he’s homeless, too, living in a tent on the back property of a friend’s father’s house in Bensalem.
And while his mother was being evicted, Winder was in jail, charged with reckless driving and driving without a license. When he was released, he walked from Doylestown to Langhorne, hitching a ride to the wooded area where a friend had told him his mother had landed.
Murielle Kelly sees struggles like that on a daily basis. It’s why the director of housing services for the Family Service Association of Bucks County and her colleagues are looking to take a new approach to addressing the demand for service amid fixed resources.
“We’re engaging clients in a different way,” Kelly said at the emergency homeless shelter her organization operates. “I believe if you have your own resources, we can connect you with other services and stitch together a solution.”
She had success not long ago, she said, by working with the family of a soon-to-be homeless young woman, telling them there was no room in the shelter, the only one in Bucks County. The family, Kelly said, agreed to take in the woman and her infant daughter for a few more months, as the county works with her on job training and other services.
Kelly wasn’t exaggerating. There is no room at the association’s Levittown shelter. It’s currently operating over capacity, at 86 people. And it has a wait list of about 80 households, or more than 120 people, Kelly said.
But even if the county had the funding and political capital to build a dozen more shelters, it wouldn’t help, according to Marlene Piasecki, the Family Service Association’s interim chief executive. The problem is more complicated than that. People seeking shelter are often simultaneously battling drug addiction and mental illness, and need other services.
“The person who comes here may have a financial challenge, and on top of that a physical challenge, and on top of that a challenge with addiction,” she said. “So if it was only, ‘Well, if we had the dollars, we’d spend the dollars, they’d use the dollars, and they’d get into housing.’ It’s more complex, and that’s why it’s so important that it’s a community-wide effort.”
Winder and Fonde hope that’s true, that someone, somewhere, will lend them a hand. In the meantime, they’re looking for work, trying to build their lives back up one piece at a time.
Last week, Winder broke down the camp where he and his mother spent their final days together. He filled trash bags with old clothes, food wrappers and other debris.
But he kept one thing: A Celtic cross that belonged to his mother. He plans to take it to his next home, whatever shape or form it may take.
Information from: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.inquirer.com