How many homeless people in Allentown need shelter but are not finding it on the snow- covered streets of the city?
As members of Allentown City Council began grappling with the issue of doing more to help the homeless Wednesday night, no one asked that key question to quantify the need and no one volunteered an answer.
Council did learn that only a few people have been using one of two shelters, referred as warming centers, which recently opened in the city.
After the meeting, one advocate for the homeless said hundreds of different people in the city need help through the winter.
"The homeless problem in Allentown is much bigger than any of us imagined and most of us wanted to admit," said Rev. Richard Baumann, pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church at 8th and Walnut streets.
Council member Joe Davis called the Wednesday night meeting of his community and economic development committee to learn more about the homeless issue, partly in response to homeless advocates appearing before City Council last month and asking the city to do more to help.
Baumann commended City Council for looking into the issue, saying: "We in our community never have paid attention to the large homeless population that we have."
Some progress has been made since that Jan. 15 meeting, including the opening of warming centers in the YMCA and Alliance Hall in the city.
They are open on different nights of the week, when Code Blue cold weather alerts are declared. Opening those shelters has taken some pressure off the overloaded Safe Haven in the basement of Baumann's church.
"We do have to continue the good work that has been done and expand it if possible, to see what else we can do to help the homeless" said Davis at the conclusion of the meeting, which was attended by six of the seven members of City Council.
More questions than answers seemed to be raised at the meeting, such as:
* Should emergency shelters open only when temperatures dip below 32
degrees or a major snowstorm is coming -- and officials declare a Code Blue -- or should they be open every night during winter months?
* Should it be the city's responsibility to do more to help homeless
people in Allentown or should that strictly be the job of non-profit human service agencies, churches and other organizations?
* Should Allentown take a more serious look at emulating the way
houses of worship in Bethlehem are helping the homeless with an emergency shelter network?
* Does Allentown need one full-fledged and staffed shelter that is
open every night and has beds, restrooms, perhaps even showers and a kitchen to feed those who stay there?
* Rather than just focusing on providing emergency shelters,
should more be done to try to end homelessness, by getting people into apartments, getting them jobs and getting them professional help to resolve whatever problems caused them to end up on the streets?
What is the goal?
"I'm not sure what the 'ask' is," Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, told City Council during the meeting. "Do we want another homeless shelter? Is that what we're trying to get here?"
It was not clear at the meeting what entity will take the lead in coordinating the development of that undefined solution.
Council member Jeanette Eichenwald made it clear the city should spearhead whatever needs to be done.
"What concerns me is we'll leave here tonight and things will be status quo," said Eichenwald. "The time has come in the City of Allentown when the status quo is no longer acceptable. I think it is a city problem. Somebody has to take the lead."
She said "we should be able to figure out a system" where men, women and children are given shelter, food and casework. She said city officials should sit down with all agencies involved and figure out a way to do it. "If nothing is accomplished, we have failed."
"There is a clear public demand for these services," said council member Peter Schweyer.
"We've got to take a holistic approach on this," said council president Julio Guridy. "We've got to do more than just find them a place to sleep overnight."
But Guridy argued that any solution cannot be on the back of the city alone. He said Lehigh County, private donors and other agencies should help finance whatever solution is reached.
Schweyer suggested the city might be able to provide some funding if a budget is developed for an overall solution strategy. "We want to be a partner with this." He said costs range from blankets, cots or yoga mats to heating a building and personnel to staff a shelter.