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Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week: The Hidden Homeless

Each day of Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week, we are going to send you an email about a topic relating to our families. Thank you for being a part of the solution!

The Hidden Homeless by Susan Ryder In the Harrisburg area, many people have lost their housing, but you won't find them living on the street.

“Do I separate myself from my kids, or do I stay on the streets with them?” asked Steve Foehlinger, of the bleak reality he faced as an unhoused father with two children.

He came to this crossroads after running the gambit of housing options, doubling up with friends and family and living in a hotel for a year. These are options for some folks dealing with homelessness, but they come at a steep emotional and financial cost.

After living with friends, Foehlinger, his young son and daughter had to move when their hosting family lost their own housing.

“When you are trying to move forward with your life, sometimes when you double up, you take on that extra stress from the family you’re living with,” he said.

Foehlinger is one of many people in the Harrisburg area who can be described as the “hidden homeless.” They’re not readily visible as people lacking permanent housing. You won’t see them in the tent encampment under the South Bridge or sleeping in the park. Their numbers are substantial, but they’re not included in the annual count of the homeless population.

Instead, after losing their housing, they scrambled to find whatever shelter they could so they didn’t end up living on the street. They couch-surfed. They paid outrageous weekly rents to live in cramped, unsafe, rundown hotels. They shuffled among friends, relatives and even sympathetic strangers—a week here, a week there.

Often, like Foehlinger, they have children in tow.

Joanne Taylor, her husband and daughter found themselves homeless nine years ago after a rent-to-own opportunity went sour.

“The house that we went after was condemned because of its foundation and structure,” Taylor said.

The family moved into a nonfunctional RV parked on an out-of-the-way piece of property. It was basically a box to keep them out of the elements, but it didn’t do that very well. Taylor broke up a bit when she described their time there.

“If you’ve ever seen the movie, ‘Frozen,’ where everything freezes up, that’s what our windows looked like,” she said.

Eventually, the family moved into a hotel. On the upside, it was warmer, but the downsides were plenty. The cost, for example. The least amount Taylor has ever spent on a hotel was $300 a week. Foehlinger has paid as much as $500.

“Most people see it [living in a hotel] from their perspective,” said Aisha Mobley, community mobilization and outreach coordinator at Christian Churches United of the Tri-County Area.

However, it definitely is not the Marriott.

“There’s a difference between staying in a hotel because you’re on business and staying in a hotel because you’re homeless,” Foehlinger said.

When asked about the hardest part of living in a hotel, Kalieb Foehlinger chimed in from the background.

“The space!” he said. “You have a bed here, a bed here, right near your bathroom. You don’t have much space to move around.”

Storing belongings adds to the confined conditions.

Both Foehlinger and Taylor mentioned how needed repairs were neglected in their hotel rooms. During the August heat wave, Taylor’s hotel air conditioner died. It hasn’t been repaired yet. They’ve also had an infestation of cockroaches, which caused them to leave the hotel they lived in for three years.

Stuck in a Hole

As the coordinator of a community center in a local hotel, created by Fishing Creek Salem UMC, Marty Wagner is very familiar with hotel life. He described what it’s like.

“Living in a 12-by-12 room with a minimum of two children, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with all your stuff, a dorm-sized refrigerator and the only way to cook your food is a microwave, ” he said.

He pointed out that’s why so many budget hotels have grills outside the rooms—so people can cook for themselves.

Wagner said that at least 40 families live in this particular hotel and described the money vacuum it creates.

“Once they get into this situation, it’s super difficult to get out of it because of their credit,” he said. “I would say that 90% to 95% that live here have jobs.”

Bad credit is one reason people find themselves in a hotel.

“People end up in hotels because you pay by the day,” Mobley said. “They take everybody.”

She said that the lack of inventory makes the housing market very competitive, and people with poor credit, any type of criminal background, reentering society after imprisonment, or an eviction find it very difficult to rent. Add the application costs, first month’s rent and security deposit, and it’s darn near impossible.

“They are stuck in a hole,” Mobley said.

Being stuck in this hole also makes them hidden. They aren’t on the street, and they aren’t on paper. These people are not included in the “point-in-time count,” done once a year, to measure homelessness in the United States.

And “they can’t get into coordinated entry,” Mobley said.

Coordinated entry is the process by which folks enter the shelter system in Dauphin County. It’s like a funnel in which applicants’ names go, and they get assigned to a shelter according to their need. However, folks in hotels, doubled up or couch surfing are not eligible, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) definition of homelessness (it has four) to enter coordinated entry. So, they are blocked from the shelter system.

To become eligible for a shelter spot, people like Steve Foehlinger would have to be living in an “uninhabitable” space, like his car, according to HUD. However, if he chose this, his children could be taken from him. To keep his kids, he continued to pay exorbitant hotel rates.

Costs aren’t the only issue with hotels.

“There’s a lot of bad things that can happen there,” Wagner said.

Hotel residents are emotionally, physically and financially vulnerable.

Mobley described a situation in which a man insinuated himself into a single-parent family living in a hotel. He presented himself to the school as the children’s father. The children reported to the school that their mom cried every night, and they needed help. Eventually, the family just disappeared.

“Human trafficking is rampant in hotels,” Mobley said.

Foehlinger’s housing struggles now seem like a bad but vivid dream. With the help of a local church, he emerged from hidden homelessness and rents a nice home, with homemade pickles on the shelf, full cupboards and a comfy living room where his 4-year-old daughter napped.

“Sometimes, people become homeless because they choose to want to live like that,” Foehlinger said. “And there are people out there, that are the best people in the world, and they just have dumb luck, things happen. And almost everything they tried, they still get shot down at every angle.”

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