Safe Harbor is a social services homeless shelter located at 536 Bushkill Dr. in Easton, Pennsylvania. It provides emergency shelter, basic human services and case management to 120-130 people facing homelessness annually (Frances Mack/B&W Staff)

The Lehigh Valley’s hidden homelessness


Anyone walking through South Bethlehem will encounter a variety of people. They might stand in line with a local shopkeeper, walk past a group of students on their way to class or cross the street alongside a family.

They may also cross paths with a person experiencing homelessness — likely without even knowing it.

Like many areas across the country, the Lehigh Valley has a substantial homeless population. 

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2022 Point in Time Count, there were almost 1,000 homeless people in the Lehigh Valley in January 2022. 

Jeffrey Poch, executive director of homeless shelter Safe Harbor Easton, said the valley’s growing homeless issue can be difficult to see with the naked eye.

“Folks aren’t posting up with a sign, so to speak,” Poch said. “They’re hidden.”

While there are a number of shelters in the valley aimed at helping the homeless population, Sara Satullo, Bethlehem’s deputy director of community development, said there is not enough housing to go around to solve the problem.

She said homelessness and unaffordable housing are inextricably linked.

“We just don’t have enough places to put people,” Satullo said.

Satullo said the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission estimates there is a deficit of almost 14,500 housing units for extremely low-income households in the area.

Sarah Massaro, director of development at Safe Harbor, said the area’s potential profitability is one of the reasons for the affordable housing crisis.

“It’s really hard to incentivize people to build affordable housing because they can make so much off regular housing,” Massaro said.

Poch said he thinks the recent building redevelopment in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton has also led to problems with affordable housing. He said all three cities have become gentrified. 

“That has pushed our folks out,” Poch said. “It doesn’t mean they’ve gone away — that means they’ve been pushed out of any affordable housing.”

Massaro said the growing gentrification and profitability of the Lehigh Valley are accompanied by rent increases. This has allowed landlords in the area to increase prices to a point where residents can no longer afford their homes.

She thinks the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to an uptick in people experiencing homelessness.

Safe Harbor has seen about a 30% increase in referrals to the shelter since 2019, Massaro said, along with an increase in the number of people coming into their day program. 

Massaro said it was stressful seeing support decrease during this time, as in-person meetings were not permitted. Some people in long-term recovery told her they relapsed during the pandemic.

In addition to in-person services being halted, Daniel Massaro, program director at Safe Harbor, said more individuals became homeless due to unemployment.

Daniel Massaro said they saw a spike in individuals coming to the shelter who needed a month or two to save up money after losing a job or experiencing a family disruption. 

Satullo said the city hired Michael Baker International Inc., a management company that provides engineering and consulting services, to develop a citywide strategic plan for homelessness. As for affordable housing, the nonprofit The Reinvestment Fund is leading a housing strategies study.

After the management company interviewed unsheltered populations, stakeholders and current service providers, Satullo said they found assistance is needed across the entire housing pipeline. 

“(William) looks at it as we have a basic moral obligation to ensure that no one dies from exposure to the elements and that every citizen in our city has access to safe and affordable housing,” Satullo said. “Those are the two bookends of the pipeline, and those can be the places where we should be investing our financial resources.” 

She said the City of Bethlehem has also been working on building an emergency shelter since March 2022.

The goals of the shelter would include providing basic necessities, such as laundry facilities and storage space, and providing case management services. It would also act as an intake center for Pennsylvania’s Coordinated Entry System, which is the first step a person must take to access any sort of housing-related services in Pennsylvania, and have satellite office space for other relevant service providers. 

Satullo said while the emergency shelter would be a good start to address homelessness in the Lehigh Valley, the city government can’t do it alone.

We recognize this is a regional problem,” Satullo said. “We’re not solving homelessness. It’s going to require us to work with both the existing service providers out there in the Lehigh Valley and also work with other municipalities.” 

She said many people living in the area do not recognize that homelessness is a problem, which presents another obstacle to addressing it.

Many individuals experiencing homelessness in the Lehigh Valley have jobs and function in stable ways, but Satullo said they have lost their housing and cannot find somewhere else to go.  

“They just don’t resemble what the identity of what a street homeless person would look like in Philadelphia or New York City,” Poch said. “That hinders us because we do have a very serious homeless issue in the Lehigh Valley, it’s just not seen.”

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  1. Is Bethlehem a sanctuary city whereby we are obligated to provide housing to anyone that shows up on the city streets or creek beds?

    Satullo says that our obligation is only to our citizens. Presumably that refers to residents that were either renting or owned a home in Bethlehem before running into problems. This should be a short term relief issue. Very few were hurt by pandemic as jobs are plentiful for those that are willing to work since 2021.

  2. Rev. Timothy Smith on

    I hear these stories quite often regarding our homeless community in Bethlehem. I thank The Brown and White for actually publishing a story to bring awareness. Honestly, as this is the first time I have actually seen Lehigh University or entities associated with it, actually engage in the issue to this degree, I am proud to see the effort. The gentrification on the part of developers in the Lehigh Valley does have a major impact on affordable housing particularly in Bethlehem. Let’s be honest, the univesities in Bethlehem have a role in this gentrification as they too are engaged in expansion projects.
    While this is NOT and inditement on the part of developers and universities as expansion is inevitable, I would suggest that they concider inclusion and equity as they expand in the community. Expansion from those with the economic resources to “buy out” the rest of the community increasingly pushes those with limited resources to the fringes of our community. As one who has had first hand experience in and with the homeless community, I engage as part of a solution. I will not disparage indite or complain.
    Our local seasonal shelters such as The Bethlehem Emergency Shelter (BES), are burdened with the care of our homeless nieghbors and are limited to the winter season. As a former volunteer and consultant for (BES) I can and do attest to the organizations heartfelt and sincere effort to serve the homeless community. As developement and expansion persists, consider allocating resources to thier efforts so that they can continue serve the homeless community.
    In fact, why not help them care for our homeless community year round. As a former client, volunteer and consultant, I was compelled to develope a non-profit organization and transition house program to ease the burden of homelessness. We are constantly looking for places and spaces to house people on a more permanent basis. Our goalie to ease the burden on seasonal shelters. Stories intended to bring awareness to the problem are a commendable start to a solution. Next step, engage in equity and inclusion. How about donating a property or two or sponsor a transition home or two. How about engaging your organizations, fraternities and sororities, as well as the student union in the process.
    Give to BES.

    Reach out to someone at 75 E Market Street Bethlehem, Pennsylvania 18018 484-379-6694 Attention, Rev. Bob Rapp

    Consider other organizations as you expand. With your donated resourses and hands on help the homeless crisis can be met with a legion of foot soldiers ready and equipped to fight the battle of homelessness in our community. Thank you for bringing awareness to the plight of our homeless. They are a part of our community. Just because we may not see them does not mean they do not exist.

    Rev. Timothy Smith
    Lead Pastor, City Of David Ministries Faith Works Inc.

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