A man at a podium with a large screen behind.

Annual summit for the homeless, Blue Bell, draws more than 200 participants

Screenshot of video, by The Times Herald.

WHITPAIN>>If government, philanthropy and nonprofit groups join forces in earnest long enough, homelessness will one day become a thing of the past.

That’s been the premise of Your Way Home Montgomery County since its inception three years ago as a “housing crisis response system,” with roots that date back nearly a decade, when a group of housing and homeless service providers in the North Penn region of the county decided they could do more with a vast number of countywide partnerships than they could alone.

On Wednesday the organization’s Fourth Annual Your Way Home Summit at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell brought more than 200 business partners, county officials, associates and clients together for three and a half hours of discussions on such topics as “Mental Health and Housing Stability,” “Economic Opportunity and Housing Stability” and “Engaging Landlords and the Community in Ending Homelessness.”

One landlord had been so engaged in the cause by offering affordable housing with a hefty dose of compassion that he merited one of three Champion for Change Awards, voted on by Your Way Home, or YWH, community partners.

As Pottstown’s Bob Larkin explained to the crowd that he’d been a landlord for 22 years, his concern for his tenants was palpable.

He spoke of one tenant in particular who had fallen behind on his rent and succumbed to drug use yet again.

It was a pattern that was familiar to the man’s many landlords during his adult lifetime — but this time one property owner, Larkin, intervened in a big way.

“Through his coach we arranged a meeting and worked through some issues,” Larkin said. “On average, this man was only able to maintain housing for a month or so throughout his life before he’d end up back on the street.”

With Larkin’s willingness to help him, the tenant has been turning things around and getting the rent check in on time for a few years now.

“Thank you for allowing me to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives,” Larkin said.

Wednesday’s award marked the first time a landlord had been so honored by Your Way Home, noted Kristen Fisher, the group’s community relations manager.

“Bob has shown concern for helping his tenants become stable long term,” noted Fisher, who said that this year’s conference had been the most successful to date.

“We have such a tremendous turnout this year, the most attendance yet, and it keeps increasing every year,” Fisher noted. “People are coming from all over Montgomery County and also the adjoining counties.”

The YWH success story could be measured by more than just attendance for its annual summit, Fisher allowed.

“We’re serving more clients and we’re rapidly rehousing them … and we’re really starting to prevent homelessness now. The big premise when we started was having a coordinated entry into homelessness. It was a lot of organizations doing their own thing. Now it’s all coordinated with all of the resources we’re using to help individuals and families. We’re getting more and more partners involved to help end homelessness.”

Due to the ongoing coordination by YWH, families have been housed more quickly, services are being provided at a reduced cost to the system and more people are being served than in the traditional models of assistance, according to the YWH website, www.yourwayhome.org.

The majority of the group’s efforts end up being focused in Norristown and Pottstown, due to the higher rate of homelessness in those communities, Fisher noted.

“The bulk of it is in Norristown and Pottstown,” she said, “but we do have to reach out to the entire county, and reach out to those outlying communities that may have homelessness that we’re not seeing as much as we are in Norristown.”

Your Way Home, which itself was the recent recipient of a prestigious U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Award for Public-Private Partnerships, launched Wednesday’s conference with remarks by Carolyn Mayinja, interim director of Montgomery County Housing and Community Development, and Russell Johnson, president and CEO of HealthSpark Foundation.

In providing national perspectives on homelessness, two keynote speakers highlighted the event, including Steve Berg, vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and Fred Karnas of the Kresge Foundation, who ended the day with his engaging comments on how far the effort to end and prevent homelessness had come since his early involvement back in 1983.

“In the context of those times, I think a lot of us have forgotten where we were then and how far we’ve come,” Karnas said. “There was no federal system to address the issue of homelessness and most city governments preferred to ignore it and hoped it would go away as fast as it appeared. Even most of us believed homelessness was an aberration. If we could only keep our finger in the dike for a little while the economy would improve and homelessness would just go away.”

But what was needed, of course, were resources for the homeless, policies addressing the issue and trained individuals to work on the problem, Karnas said.

“We tested ideas and we forced legislation through. And we made progress. Today there is $5 million targeted for homeless programs. It’s folks like you at the local level who are really making a difference and making change happen in this country, in places like Houston and here in Montgomery County.”

Also receiving Champion for Change Awards were Zach Costello of the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center in Norristown and Meredith Huffman, executive director of the Genuardi Family Foundation.

From Gary Puleo. (2016 June 22). The Times Herald. Annual summit for the homeless, Blue Bell, draws more than 200 participants. Retrieved from:  http://www.timesherald.com/general-news/20160622/annual-summit-for-the-homeless-blue-bell-draws-more-than-200-participants