ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Advocates for the homeless demanded Allentown City Council take immediate action to protect people in the city from freezing to death.
A few even suggested City Hall itself, where Wednesday night's council meeting was held, should be opened as an overnight shelter because it is heated round-the-clock.
Some in the audience scoffed when Council member Joe Davis announced his community and economic development committee will discuss the issue of shelter for the homeless on Feb.12.
Advocates said people need emergency shelters now and cannot wait another month in the middle of winter.
"We probably can't solve the problem," admitted Davis, "but we can at least identify it and make the first official steps."
People in the audience scoffed even louder when Francis Dougherty, the city's business manager, suggested taking the issue to a local commission to end homelessness.
Homeless advocate Diane Teti, who serves on that Commission to End Chronic Homelessness, said it is a committee of volunteers "with no teeth or clout to do anything."
"I don't want somebody to have to die for City Council to do something about this," Teti told council. "What can we do right now while we look for a longer term solution?"
Teti and others said shelter space is limited in the city and people get turned away on the coldest nights, because those places become overcrowded.
She and others warned that four homeless people died in Allentown four years ago – three from exposure to cold and the fourth was crushed to death after seeking shelter in a dumpster.
"If we have a death on our streets, I will come up here and say ‘I told you so' but that doesn't save that life," Teti told council. "I'm begging you, please do whatever needs to happen to open doors to people. It is an emergency situation. These are human beings."
"We need to do something immediately," agreed council member Jeanette Eichenwald.
Eichenwald said societies are judged by what they do for their neediest people.
Agreeing with a resident who addressed council, Eichenwald said she's in favor of opening City Hall to the homeless whenever temperatures drop to dangerously low levels.
Council president Julio Guridy suggested the city work to find an emergency solution "over the next couple of days." He asked Dougherty to lead the effort to find an appropriate shelter.
One glimmer of hope for prompt action came from Robert Smith, president of the Allentown School Board.
Smith told council he will speak with Dr. Russell Mayo, superintendent of the Allentown School District, "to see what we can do with this homeless issue." He said school buildings are opened all the time if there is a bomb threat or a fire. "I don't see why we can't do something with this homeless issue immediately."
Earlier in the meeting, council vice president Ray O'Connell said the school district has buildings in all sections of the city that have been used in emergencies. And he said gyms in many city schools are opened to drum and bugle corps during summer competitions.
"It's imperative that we open our gyms for the most needy," said O'Connell. "We have a long winter to go."
Also offering help was Pastor Gregory Saez of Mission One Ministries church at 114 N. 10th St. He told council: "I don't have beds, there are no showers -- there are regular bathrooms -- but there's a lot of floor. Our place can be used to help the community. On those really cold nights, we would like to help out in any way possible."
Dougherty suggested Lehigh County should be involved, because it has emergency management capabilities. And council member Peter Schweyer said the county "is the social service arm of the region."
Lehigh County Executive Thomas Muller attended the City Council meeting, but strictly as an observer. He did not stand to address City Council. As the newly elected executive, Muller plans to visit public meetings of all municipalities in the county.
After the council meeting, Muller said: "I agree with what many said tonight--this needs more action and less talk."
He plans to meet with the county's emergency services director Thursday morning to see how the county might be able to address the short-term threat to homeless people when temperatures drop below a certain level.
"How you define the point where the homeless need to be moved to shelter?" asked the county exec. "Is there a pre-determined temperature? What about heavy rain?"
Muller indicated responding to emergencies such as gas explosions or Hurricane Sandy is different than providing long-term shelter to homeless people.
Muller said the county may be able to help address the short-term threat, when temperatures drop below a certain level, but added the issue requires long-term solutions involving the city, school district, clergy, non-profits and human services personnel.
O'Connell said when a gas explosion occurred several years ago, the city used Agricultural Hall in the Allentown Fairgrounds as an emergency shelter for a couple of days.
A uniformed Allentown police officer wearing his hat conspicuously stood along the side wall in council chambers throughout the entire City Council meeting, which lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours.
A line of people waiting to speak to council, most in defense of the homeless, stretched the length of the room for nearly 90 minutes.
Those addressing council included at least two men who formerly were homeless – one lived under the 8th Street Bridge for eight years and the other used to sleep in the bandshell at West Park -- and a woman who said she will become homeless on Feb. 1 because she has no income.
After four homeless people died in one winter in Allentown, St. Paul's Lutheran Church at 38 S. Eighth St. opened Safe Haven.
The Rev. Richard Baumann, the church's pastor, said Safe Haven opened with the intention of providing shelter to four or five people on the floor.
"It rose to 23, then to 40 last night," said Baumann.
"Our homeless problem in Allentown is enormous. We really don't have time to talk. It's time to do something."
Homeless advocate Dale Smith said St. Paul's has space for about 20 to
25 people on the floor of its parish hall. "In that cold snap last week, 40-50 people were showing up a night. That was just way too much."
Teti said on Tuesday night, Safe Haven could not take any more people.
While expressing gratitude that the congregation of St. Paul's has opened its doors, Teti said people at Safe Haven must stay in "deplorable" conditions. She said they manage themselves, with no volunteers, counselors or security.
People sleep side-by-side on the floor, said Teti.
"In a space meant for 23, we have close to 50 people. There is literally no space between them. We need to do better for these people. This is a manageable problem. But something has to be done now, not in February."
After the council meeting, Teti said: "I am optimistic that we're on the right path."
Also during the meeting, it was announced council soon will schedule a special committee-of-the-whole meeting to better determine what more
the city should do about its slums and slum landlords.
Noting having such a committee-of-the-whole meeting has been discussed before, Eichenwald pushed for a date and hopes the administration will be there.
She said Ken Heffentrager of the Allentown Tenant Association presents "salient and important issues" regarding slum properties in Allentown at nearly every council meeting.
O'Connell supported Eichenwald's suggestion that a committee-of-the-whole council meeting be scheduled on the issue.
Julie Thomases of the Allentown Environmental Advisory Council appealed to City Council to help get three vacancies filled. She said interested people who regularly attend EAC meetings patiently have been waiting to be appointed by Mayor Ed Pawlowski.
One of them is Ken Heaton, a civil engineer who has been waiting more than a year.
"It is disrespectful to them, and to the EAC, that no action has been taken on these applications," said Thomases. She said the EAC is supposed to have seven members, but only has four.
"We're asking council to exert whatever influence they can to have these applications acted upon."
When she asked Dougherty why not action has been taken, he said the city has a multitude of authorities, boards and commissions.
"At almost every council meeting, including tonight, we do our best to fill those vacancies," said Dougherty. "We can't get to every board and every commission."
He added: "This is the mayor's prerogative. The mayor gets to choose the candidates. I don't think he has gotten a chance to review any of the applications. The mayor will have to advise who he wants to appoint."
Said O'Connell: "For the EAC to function in a viable manner for this city, it's very important that those positions be filled. It's not like we don't have applicants. We need to fill these positions on the EAC as quickly as possible." He said he is willing to call Pawlowski to encourage him to fill the vacancies.
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