The face of homelessness in Indiana County

Tina Grimm. Submitted photo.

Tina Grimm. Submitted photo.

A Civic Project story

By Meghan McDonald

BLAIRSVILLE — Tina L. Grimm, 33, lives in a trailer here with her two young daughters. But for two years the road to her home passed through homeless shelters.

“It was a tough situation,” Grimm recalled with tears in her eyes during a May 1 interview at her trailer.

In 2010, Grimm became pregnant with her first daughter. She and her boyfriend moved from Connellsville to Greensburg. The couple split soon after.

Grimm was homeless and pregnant. She had nowhere go, she said, and she didn’t know what to do.

Through a referral, she found help at the Welcome Home Shelter in Greensburg.

After her stay, Grimm got back together with her boyfriend in Greensburg. But they split once more. Grimm was homeless again.

“I moved back into a homeless shelter, finding out that I was pregnant with my second,” Grimm said. “Every time I was pregnant, that’s when I was shipped off to a shelter.”

Grimm returned to Welcome Home.  When her allotted 60 days were up, Grimm was referred to Family Promise.  The nonprofit’s day center is at Covenant Way Church in Indiana, Pa. 

“I felt like I was worthless,” Grimm said of her two homeless years. “I fought long and hard to at least get my head above water again.”

Grimm’s tale provides a rare look inside homelessness in Indiana and surrounding counties. As told by those in need and those in positions to help, the problem is both expanding and largely invisible.

IT IS NOT UNUSUAL to find helping hands for the homeless, like those who helped Grimm on her way to a home.

Pathway Homeless Center is operated by the Indiana County Community Action Program. Every year the center sees hundreds of homeless people referred to its Black Lick shelter.

From July 1, 2012, to April 30, 2013, Pathway received 418 homeless people referred to its facility, according to Marlene M. Meagher, 47, Pathway shelter coordinator. The center has assisted 103 men, women and children this year alone.

“I do see the people that are homeless, and I do get phone calls in the middle of the night,” Meagher said in a May 2 phone interview. “I wish I could take them all in.”

Space constraints limit the number of homeless people the center can help, Meagher said. But the reasons for homelessness seem limitless.

“There are so many different reasons why people are homeless,” Meagher said.

Poor health, low income, disability or drug abuse can contribute to homelessness, Meagher said.

IN GRIMM’S CASE, pregnancy and lack of support led her to homelessness — and to the doorstep of Family Promise.

Carole A. Reed, 52, Family Promise network director, said homelessness in Indiana is a growing problem – for families and for veterans.

When she speaks to civic organizations, businesses and churches, many citizens express surprise.

“They’re often dumbfounded that there are homeless folks right here in Indiana County,” Reed said in a March 29 interview at the day center in Covenant Church. “They are really an invisible population.”

Reed said middle-class residents think of the homeless as scruffy, older, alcoholic men who live under bridges.

“That’s just not the face of homelessness in 2013 anymore,” Reed said.

THE FACE of local homelessness can be found in the student body at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  Adam Myers, 18, an IUP music education major, said has seen it.

“One of my friends was homeless until about a month ago,” Myers said in a March 29 interview at IUP.

Myers said IUP students wouldn’t be aware of the problem because homeless students may not want to reveal their circumstances.

“People, while at school, shouldn’t have to worry about a place to live,” Myers said. “That should be the last thing you have to worry about with your academics.”

STUDENT homelessness extends to grade school.

The Armstrong Indiana Intermediate Unit 28 on West Pike Road in Indiana, provides assistance to homeless children from preschool to high school in 11 counties (Armstrong, Blair, Cambria, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Indiana, Jefferson and Potter).

“Most of our families are being evicted, or older children are being kicked out or thrown out of their homes,” said Andrea L. Sheesley, 40, ARIN regional homeless coordinator, in an April 18 interview at the Indiana office.

Sheesley said she works with children who are with their families, in coordination with homeless shelters and local school districts.

“Our goal is when children become homeless, they are able to go to their home school origin and stay connected with their schools and communities and their peers,” Sheesley said. “When children lose their homes and everything, with this, at least they can go back to their home-school origin.”

ARIN statistics report that there were 129 homeless children in Indiana County in 2011-2012. In February of this year alone, ARIN counted 108. 

ARIN has no accurate count of homelessness in earlier years, Sheesley wrote in an April 29 email.  But she added that ARIN works with more than 1,000 homeless children throughout its 11-county region.

And that figure may be an undercount.

“That number only consists of the number that we’re aware of,” said Maureen J. Bourke, 36, ARIN site coordinator, in an April 18 at interview on the ARIN office.

Bourke said the undercounted include homeless families afraid to seek help for fear that Children Youth Services will take their kids away from them. Bourke said that fear is groundless.

Moreover, teenagers increasingly are counted among the homelessness, Bourke said.  They join the ranks by getting kicked out of their homes or by leaving home for their own safety.

HOUSING PRICES are contributing to local homelessness, Bourke said.

“Landlords are raising their rent prices, because Marcellus shale [workers] can pay that,” Bourke said.

Sheesley agreed.

“The cost of rent is much higher,” Sheesley said. “The landlords can get more money from the oil drilling and the student rentals.”

A survey of classified ads for housing published in the IUP student newspaper The Penn supported Sheesley’s assertion. Advertised rents rose dramatically between the 2002-2003 and the 2012-2013 academic years.  For example: an apartment with utilities rented for an average of $1,172 for four- to six-months’ rent in 2002-2003, the ads show. In 2012-2013, the comparable advertised rent average was $2,107, an increase of 80 percent.

GRIMM SAID having a home does not mean having no stress. She feels the burdens of being unemployed and providing for her two children.

“It’s going to be rough for a while,” Grimm said. “The last thing that I want to do is to lose my girls due to me being homeless again.”

She attends a church that hosted her while she was homeless, Grimm said.  She plans to enroll at IUP. And she volunteers with Family Promise, helping other homeless families.

Helping the homeless should be a community priority, Grimm said.

“If they have a heart beating inside of their chest, don’t look at it as a problem. Look at it as, ‘How can I help?’” Grimm said.

Meghan F. McDonald, a senior journalism and English (writing) double major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Indiana, Pa.

Sidebar: For more info

For more information or to get involved with the issue of homelessness in the Indiana area, contact the following sources for this story:

Carole A. Reed
Family Promise Network
Covenant Way Church
1292 Old Route 119 Hwy N
White, PA 15490‎
‪Phone: 724-464-5220

Indiana County Community Action Program
827 Water Street
Indiana, PA 15701
Phone: 724-465-2567

Andrea L. Sheesley
ARIN IU Regional Homeless Coordinator
2895 W Pike Rd
Indiana, PA 15701
Phone: 724 463-5300

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