Is our South Side Bethlehem community ready to help in an emergency?
Thankfully, with the help of a new partnership between the Bethlehem Area School District, United Way and New Bethany Ministries, we can confidently say yes!
On Nov. 24 — Thanksgiving Eve — at around 8:30 p.m., a three-alarm fire broke out on the South Side of Bethlehem, displacing two families and leaving them effectively homeless.
The children of the two families attended Donegan Elementary School and Broughal Middle School. School officials were alerted to the fire, and with the help of New Bethany Ministries, they were immediately able to place both families into extended stay hotels.
This all happened on Thanksgiving Day, while most families were safe in their homes, just sitting down for a hot meal with each other.
How was this possible?
New Bethany Ministries now staffs an on-site Housing Advocate at three South Side Bethlehem schools.
Bria Dews is a case worker able to meet and talk with families in person before and during school hours at Donegan Elementary School, Broughal Middle School and Fountain Hill Elementary School. Dews’ services are an extension of New Bethany’s Housing Assistance office, which provides counseling, rent assistance and housing placement services to anyone who needs it.
What the Housing Advocate provides that the New Bethany office generally cannot is on-the-spot assistance to any family with children attending South Side Bethlehem schools.
Thanks to this close connection to needed emergency services, Community School staff at Donegan and Broughal were able to call Dews and the New Bethany housing team on Thanksgiving Day. Often, having a number to call (on any day, much less a holiday) is the biggest hurdle in seeking assistance.
In addition to hotel placement, families also received Thanksgiving grab-and-go meals at New Bethany (due to COVID-19, the organization does not host congregate meals).
Clothing and supplies were provided by Community School staff. And, since one of the families is primarily Spanish speaking, New Bethany provided translation services. All together, a team of about half a dozen people from Bethlehem Area School District and New Bethany all worked together on Thanksgiving Day to get the families what they needed.
This is a window into a larger issue.
This is just two of over a dozen displaced families who have been assisted in connection to the South Side BASD schools over the past two months since the program began. These are families who require rental assistance, utility assistance and sometimes emergency hotel stays.
With an early recorded average of six displaced families per month, for a program in its beginning stages, it is evident that low income schools have high mobility rates.
United Way, through its Community School network, tracks mobility at selected schools throughout the Lehigh Valley. It reports anywhere from 24 percent to 33 percent at schools with high numbers of low-income students. A high mobility rate means that many students will change schools, and often towns, throughout the year.
Moving from school to school severely limits a child’s ability to learn. Not only does the curriculum change in a new district, but children and families in poverty routinely manage trauma in their lives, which can overwhelm students and keep from everyday learning goals.
The Housing Assistance partnership aims to reduce the mobility rate at South Side schools with the hope that childhood trauma can be reduced and consistent learning can again take a front seat.
This partnership would not be possible without an anonymous contribution from a United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley donor.
Without the structure of the Community School system, including dedicated staff at all three South Side schools, displaced families may not have had someone to turn to in the first place. This is how a school district, non-profit organization and funding partner can work together toward the end of the homeless crisis in our community.
Of course, anyone can use the New Bethany Ministries Housing Assistance program.
This team of five case managers have helped nearly 2,000 households since the start of the pandemic. Thanks to funds from the 2020 CARES Act, among other local, state and Federal sources, New Bethany has prevented homelessness for hundreds of families by means of issuing rental assistance during the health and economic crisis.
If families fall through the cracks and are displaced from their house, (rental unit or otherwise) New Bethany has access to funds for extended hotel stays and can assist with housing search assistance and other case management services.