In the Lehigh Valley, hundreds of families experience homelessness each year. As the director of the Sixth Street Shelter, people often ask me why people in our community, where opportunity seems so plentiful, become homeless. While each family’s circumstances are unique, we do see some common themes including loss of a job, domestic violence, unexpected illness, and aging out of foster care. Homelessness is something that can and does impact people from all walks of life, either directly or indirectly.
The Sixth Street Shelter was founded in 1984 to support families as they work toward resolving their homelessness. Families are typically permitted to stay at the shelter for up to 60 days. During that time, the shelter provides families with a private apartment that includes a full kitchen and bathroom. This allows families of all compositions, whether it is a one or two parent household, to stay united for emotional and economic support throughout the crisis of homelessness. The shelter also has a Family Resource Center with a computer lab that can be used for job applications, apartment searches, and school work. In return for the privilege of having access to this private and community space, the shelter expects residents to follow all of the rules, pay a modest weekly shelter fee, put at least half of their income into savings, meet with a caseworker once a week, and contribute to the community by performing a chore and participating in shelter-wide educational activities.
Unfortunately, the Sixth Street Shelter is not able to provide all families in need with this opportunity to turn their lives around. The waiting list currently has over 60 families and has peaked at over 100 families in the past year. With just 20 apartments available, it is impossible to immediately meet the need of families who do not have a home to call their own. Families typically wait about three to five months to enter the shelter. While some families are able to find stable housing during that time, more often they remain homeless — stretching the generosity of family and friends, sleeping in their car, or staying in a motel until there is an opening at a shelter. The instability of these living arrangements makes it difficult for families, particularly those with children, to progress toward their self-sufficiency goals.
Many of our neighbors from throughout the Lehigh Valley have been partnering with the Sixth Street Shelter to meet the unfortunately unending need for emergency shelter. This past April, a blighted building that was once located next to the shelter campus was demolished to make way for a new building which will contain five apartments. The new building will open this fall, and through this expansion the shelter will be able to serve an additional 30 families each year.
The success of the Sixth Street Shelter expansion project from the very beginning has been contingent upon the involvement of many donors and volunteers. Over $700,000 has been raised to date from individuals, businesses, foundations, and government sources. This is a significant investment that will leverage the shelter’s existing resources so that more families have the opportunity to find safe and stable housing. In addition to financial support, the project has benefitted beyond measure from the hard work of many volunteers.
Through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity® Lehigh Valley, volunteers from First Presbyterian Church of Allentown and Sons of a Carpenter have assisted during all phases of construction. Not only is the impact of their involvement immense; each and every minute has been filled with a lot of love and care for our community and the people who will soon benefit from their effort. In addition to construction, volunteers are helping to make the Sixth Street Shelter’s new space aesthetically appealing. Bridget Huzar Garden Designs created a plan for, and will help to plant, a calming child-friendly garden. Glen Anthony Designs is making recommendations for use of the basement space to make the most of the natural beauty of the original foundation stone wall. This project would simply not have been possible without the donors and volunteers who have compassionately made many generous contributions.
I started volunteering when I was a child because it was family expectation. Since then, I have learned to love the joy of sharing my time with others through community service. Volunteering has many benefits such as meeting new friends, developing skills, and trying new things. Perhaps most importantly, by volunteering we can do something which seems fun and natural to us, but makes a big difference in others’ lives.
While I have only been director of the Sixth Street Shelter for about half a year, I have met many people during this time who have enriched my life. Our volunteers and donors certainly add a great deal of value to the shelter and to me personally. Our shelter residents also inspire me as they make progress on their journey toward self-sufficiency. In the past week alone, two of our shelter residents started full time jobs. One resident re-enrolled in community college after leaving when her youngest child was born. One family found a new place to call home. With determination and support, from both shelter staff and the community, our residents are able to accomplish great things in the short amount of time that they stay at the shelter.
Volunteers help our residents and the Sixth Street Shelter achieve goals that would otherwise be improbable. Whether you volunteer at the Sixth Street Shelter or another organization that is dear to your heart, your involvement is appreciated. And if you don’t volunteer, it is never too late to begin – call an organization that interests you today!