Our Opinion: Bring Luzerne County’s homeless in from cold

The run-up to Thanksgiving has become a popular time to remind Americans about the pervasiveness of homelessness.

But we in Northeastern Pennsylvania shouldn’t need a special week reserved in November to heighten our awareness; we’re reminded almost all the time about the plight of people who, for one of many reasons, find themselves with no decent shelter and seemingly few good options.

Most recently, police and Wyoming Valley West School District officials visited an apparent homeless encampment in Larksville, verifying its hut-like structure is on district-owned property and making plans to raze it. Someone living there reportedly outfitted the place with shelves containing canned goods and books, even fashioned a bed with a makeshift night stand.

“It was sad to see, quite frankly,” district Business Manager Joe Rodriguez told the Times Leader. “I feel bad. We’re telling somebody out there to leave. We left a note saying that would be a good idea.”

Similarly, volunteers who pluck litter each spring from the Kirby Park Natural Area in Wilkes-Barre commonly uncover personal belongings and other signs that someone, or several people, are using the secluded spot as a living quarters. Evidence also suggests trespassers enter certain big empty buildings in the Wyoming Valley, including the former New Jersey Central Railroad station, adopting them as temporary, albeit illegal, flophouses. The local homeless population refers to these sites as “abandominiums.”

In Hazleton, meanwhile, Times Leader reporter Geri Gibbons this fall documented a homeless campground, where inhabitants say tents typically protect a dozen to 50 people from the elements, depending on the season.

The danger in Luzerne County, of course, is that we take this sorry situation for granted.

A report last week from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development indicated homelessness nationally dropped a bit this year compared to last, continuing a years-long, gradual trend. Some states, however, including Pennsylvania and New York, saw their numbers increase. Perhaps not coincidentally, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio only days ago admitted failing to curb the city’s homeless epidemic is his administration’s biggest failure; the Big Apple will devote more than $2 billion to create about 15,000 “supportive housing” apartments for people who are chronically homeless, he said.

Other communities have adopted a “housing first” philosophy, popularized under President George W. Bush, that puts people under roofs, then connects them with social services, rather than requiring they first deal with, for instance, substance abuse issues. Several cities have developed programs supported by the Obama administration and are reporting success in effectively eliminating homelessness among particular populations, such as veterans.

Today, what is the Wyoming Valley’s coordinated approach for eliminating homelessness?

Do we have one?

If not, why not? And when will we?