Allegheny College junior Autumn Vogel stood on a bench in Diamond Park to address the crowd gathered in support of awareness and advocacy for Crawford County’s homeless Friday evening.
“We are here tonight to honor the voices of homeless and displaced individuals,” she announced through a megaphone, looking out over the 500 or more flags displayed at the park, each representing a reported homeless person in the county.
Vogel coordinated Friday’s public event, “The Many Shapes of Home: Debunking the Stigma of Homelessness in Crawford County,” with a team of fellow students representing the Values, Ethics and Social Action (VESA) academic minor.
The event, sponsored by the Allegheny College Office of Service Learning and Crawford County Mental Health Awareness Program (CHAPS), was initiated to help the community learn the impact of homelessness on people, families and the community as well as expand perceptions, broaden thinking on the subject and strengthen the community, Vogel said.
VESA students led a procession, carrying the flags in Diamond Park, to the CHAPS building on Liberty Street where more than 50 Meadville residents, agency officials, Allegheny students and others watched a short documentary on local homelessness and witnessed a related panel discussion.
“This team (of students) has done a phenomenal job,” said Dave Roncolato, director of Community Service and Service-Learning at Allegheny. “The homeless issue, if not communicated correctly, (perpetuates) stereotypes. It takes a community effort to solve homelessness.”
The documentary, “Homelessness Next Door,” focused on event panelist Susan Jageman, who overcame chronic homelessness and went on to her current position as a certified peer specialist for CHAPS.
“You can’t keep what you have unless you give it away,” she said, referring to her goal of giving other homeless individuals the opportunities she was given by CHAPS and other agencies.
This was the first time she’d seen the documentary, made by Allegheny student Katie Beck, which consisted of Jageman revisiting former apartments and places where she resided between bouts of homelessness and recounting her journey to success.
“I hope it helps somebody,” she said. “It’s humbling, but it’s something I have to do to ensure my steady recovery.”
The subsequent panel discussion featured advocates and representatives from local homeless outreach agencies, including Rose Hilliard, family advocate for Women’s Services, Inc.; Lynn McUmber, executive director of CHAPS; Judith Falvey, program coordinator for Crawford County Coalition on Housing Needs’ Liberty House; Wendy Kinnear, a regional site coordinator for the state Department of Education; Eric Warner, past president of the Meadville Housing Authority; and Jageman.
Panelists touched on local misconceptions of homelessness, including the fact that many county residents are unaware homelessness even exists in the area and identifying the homeless beyond a stereotypical figure perpetuated by popular culture — a raggedly-dressed man with mental health issues and drug or alcohol addiction, pushing a shopping cart of personal possessions down a city street.
So why do people believe homelessness isn’t a big issue in Crawford County?
“Cities have visibility,” Kinnear said, providing state statistics that report a rapidly growing population of homeless youth, including runaways and those unaccompanied — children kicked out of their homes or living without legal guardians. “Rural poverty looks different.”
Rural homeless often resort to different alternatives than their city counterparts, squatting in campers, setting up tents in the woods, breaking into empty houses, sleeping in garages and barns or finding shelter through other means, panelists said.
Unlike in city settings where passersby are most often complete strangers, rural residents are hesitant to label people they know as homeless, leading to a loss of potential state and federal funding which is often based on numbers, according to Kinnear.
And there’s not one cause of homelessness, panelists agreed, listing sources like domestic violence, sexual abuse, lack of education or life skills, job loss, decreased income and more.
“People are on the streets,” Hilliard said. “People don’t realize shelters are full. Families are going from relative to relative, couples and children are separated and it just breaks your heart.”
In 2011, over 22 percent of Crawford County residents were below the poverty line, according to Warner, who said households combine as a result, putting a strain on individuals, friends and families.
“It’s sad, because people have to work two jobs to survive, which puts them at risk for burnout,” he said.
In many cases, even working families or individuals aren’t given a break because their landlords can scarcely afford it, McUmber added.
That being said, county agencies have been making strides through collaboration and support from awareness and education raised through events like these, McUmber continued.
Panelists agreed education, awareness and opportunity in addition to debunking social stigmas regarding homelessness are the first steps to mitigating the problem and putting local people on the path to permanent housing and ultimately helping them become contributing members of society.
Local agencies can also be supported with funding, volunteer labor, donation of furniture and household items and opportunities for employment and housing from business owners and community members.
“Resources are here, but they’re under-resourced,” Roncolato said, believing fewer misconceptions about the homeless could lead to an increase in local resources, be it through funding, programs or other support. “We judge the vitality of our community not by the wealthy, but how we as a community care for those marginalized.”
Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.