Bethlehem City Council will vote next month on a measure to use $1.4 million in Housing and Urban Development funds to create Bethlehem’s first permanent emergency shelter.
The City of Bethlehem received funding both from HUD and the American Rescue Plan in 2021, which will go toward addressing homelessness.
Bethlehem is designated by HUD as a community development block grant and entitlement community. At the Nov. 1 meeting, Laura Collins, Bethlehem’s community and economic development director, told City Council members this means the city gets a recurring allocation of funding based on the population and community needs.
“Our intent is to use the $1.4 million to support activities related to the acquisition, construction or rehabilitation of structures to serve as non-congregate shelters,” Collins said.
Non-congregate shelters are ones in which occupants have private space, as opposed to congregate living where spaces are communal.
Bethlehem Housing Authority Commissioner Marc Rittle said during public comment that Housing First is the best strategy to address homelessness.
According to the Housing First website, the strategy is a “homeless assistance approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness.” Rittle said the approach works by identifying the immediate problem, which is the lack of housing, and addresses it by providing a person or family with an apartment or house.
“Housing First would work perfectly if there was enough affordable housing stock in our city or region, and unfortunately there is not,” Rittle said.
During public comment at the meeting, Bethlehem resident Anna Zavaruca brought up a few concerns regarding the strategic plan.
Zavaruca said Bethlehem must address affordability when addressing homelessness and making a plan for the emergency shelter.
“I don’t feel that the City of Bethlehem is really doing enough to have low-income, entry-level housing,” Zavaruca said.
Linsey Altvater, associate pastor of formation and justice at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, said at the meeting she was grateful to Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering and New Bethany Ministries for the help they put into making this plan possible through outreach and fundraising efforts.
“I certainly understand and echo that the housing crisis in the Lehigh Valley and across our country is multifaceted,” Altvater said. “But transitional housing and emergency sheltering needs for our most vulnerable neighbors is a critical piece alongside affordable housing, which is why I’m grateful that the city is assessing and planning around both of those things.”
Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith had questions regarding whether the shelter would be made by rehabilitating a current structure or by building something new.
Collins said the final plan to address homelessness would include specific details regarding Crampsie Smith’s question.
Bethlehem resident Liam Caceres said he has witnessed homelessness firsthand in Bethlehem.
“Some people that go to the public schools in this city are living outside and they don’t know how to get help,” Caceres said. “We just got to do something.”
City Council will vote on the final plan to use the funding during their meeting on Dec. 7.
Once the plan is finalized, Collins said the council will submit it to HUD and wait 30 days for their review. If the plan is approved, the funds will then be made available for use.