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.”