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?”