homelessness awareness event

Lynn McUmber, executive director of Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program, speaks with Nicole Gross-Camp, an environmental science professor at Allegheny College, during a homelessness awareness event Friday in Diamond Park.

Exactly 310 luminaria lined the sidewalks of Diamond Park on Friday — one for each of the 310 people affected by homelessness in Crawford County over the past year, according to Lynn McUmber, executive director of Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program.

The figure comes from the people registered for the county’s coordinated entry system for homeless services, McUmber said. People who register are either living in shelters or on the streets, she added, and the figure represents a conservative estimate of the number of county residents experiencing homelessness since not all of them register with the social services nonprofit.

The luminaria were set up by members of Nicole Gross-Camp’s environmental justice class at Allegheny College as part of an event designed to raise awareness about homelessness, as well as the services available in the county to prevent and respond to it. Representatives from more than a half-dozen of the social service organizations that assist people with housing and related challenges were staffing tables set up in the center of the park.

McUmber said there was a simple explanation for why such an event was needed.

“We live in a rural county and many, many people on a regular basis — unless they’re in this field of work — will say, ‘Well, there’s not really any homelessness in Crawford County,’ and indeed there is,” she explained. “It looks different.”

The term “homeless” might bring to mind stereotypical images of tents or boxes and people sleeping on urban street corners, but in Crawford County homelessness typically takes different forms. McUmber said that the county’s homeless can be found living in cars, in “risky” inside situations that often involve domestic violence and in places not fit for human habitation, such as sheds and barns. Sometimes the county’s homeless dwell in tents, she said, but social services workers do their best to get people out of such situations in the winter.

Speaking amidst the luminaria and strings of T-shirts color-coded to represent the major groups affected by homelessness — those experiencing mental health or substance abuse issues, children and veterans — McUmber made note of the near-freezing temperature.

“If you don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight, you can’t move forward,” she said. As a result, health-related issues and other critical concerns will typically go unaddressed in homeless people.

“You’re not going to think about that until you get a place to live,” McUmber said. “We witness that all the time.”

The way in which homelessness connects to so many other factors in the larger social landscape is part of what makes it a natural focus for a class on environmental justice, according to Gross-Camp.

The phrase may give rise to images save-the-whales-type activism, but a better example of the “environment” in question would be the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, she said.

“Environmental justice would be how we think about the costs and benefits of our actions in relation to the environment we are in,” Gross-Camp said. The environment in question could be the natural world, she added, but could just as easily be the social world as well. Environmental justice emphasizes a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of the social environment and giving people an active voice in the things that affect their lives.

Students from Gross-Camp’s class said that the class had changed their view of homelessness in Crawford County.

“It’s one of those counter-intuitive things,” sophomore Megan Swing said of social service providers represented at the event. “If they’re doing their job, then you don’t see the problem.”

Jack Van Meter, also a sophomore, suggested that many people, such as students ensconced in their “campus bubble,” prefer not seeing problems like homelessness.

“It’s really important for the community to be aware of it,” he said. “I feel like this issue is pushed under the table and not addressed and maybe sometimes people turn a blind eye to it. We want to make people aware of it because it is really important.” 

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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