Ashley Kunkle, campaign coordinator for United Way Westmoreland County, grew up in a family where giving back to the community came naturally. Although she was taught by example to love her neighbors and share generously, Kunkle says her early impression of a homeless person was “someone lazy, not wanting to help themselves.”
“I would ask myself- what is broken that this person is in this situation, and wonder why they don’t just get a job at McDonald’s; they are always hiring,” said Kunkle.
One chilly, fall morning Kunkle’s heart was broken and her impression of homelessness changed completely. “I was driving to work on Route 30 and on the ramp near Gabe’s when I saw this ’encampment,’” said Kunkle. “It was a shock to my system.”
Kunkle clearly remembers realizing that the tent set up on the shoulder of the busy highway was someone’s home. She was familiar with scenes like this in and around Pittsburgh, but Kunkle said seeing this in her hometown of Greensburg opened her eyes to the reality that there are needy people everywhere and that she and all of us need to do something to help.
Her work at the United Way has helped her to understand that there are many reasons why people end up homeless. “We need to break down the wall of the stereotype,” said Kunkle. “It’s not just about getting a job. A lot of these people have many hurdles to cross and [homelessness] can happen to anyone.”
Kunkle shared a story of a person who became homeless after being hurt on the job and being strapped with high medical bills. She addressed a group gathered for a rally for National Hunger and Homeless Awareness week held at Courthouse Square in Greensburg the week before Thanksgiving.
This year Westmoreland County Commissioners Ted Kopas, Charles Anderson and Gina Cerilli recognized Nov. 13-20 as a time to encourage all citizens to acknowledge that many people of our community are suffering from inadequate housing, hunger and poverty and the need for support from individuals and agencies for assistance. Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week is co-sponsored nationally by the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. The event originated at Villanova University in 1975, and now takes place in nearly 700 communities across the country.
“This is the time of year when we all reflect on our lives, finding gratitude and peace in where and who we are,” said Colen Brown, director of Welcome Home Shelter and chairperson of this year’s event. “But there are so many families that will not be able to come together during the season, torn apart by hunger and homelessness.”
Welcome Home, which serves families, women and children, is one of only two homeless shelters in Westmoreland County. Union Mission located in Latrobe houses men who find themselves in need of shelter.
These two places, along with several other local agencies and ministries, provided nearly 20,000 nights of shelter last year for over 700 people in our county and each year the number increases. Numbers show that in Pennsylvania 20,000 people go homeless each night and half of those folks are families, including newborn babies to teenaged children.
There are more shocking statistics about homelessness that we all should know, found on the fact card given out at the event:
-Nationally there are nearly 600,000 people homeless each night in the U.S. and approximately 250,000 are families and 350,000 are individuals.
-15 percent or 85,000 are considered chronically homeless
-Eight percent or 48,000 are Veterans
-For persons in families, the three most commonly cited causes of homelessness are: lack of affordable housing, poverty and unemployment
-For singles, the three most commonly cited causes of homelessness are: substance abuse, lack of affordable housing and mental illness
-Racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented in that:
-39 percent are non-Hispanic whites
-42 percent are African Americans
-13 percent are Hispanic
-Four percent are Native American
-Two percent are Asian
-People who are homeless frequently report health problems:
-38 percent report alcohol use problems
-26 percent report drug abuse problems
-39 percent report some form of mental health problems
-66 percent report either substance use and/or mental health problems
The statistics are heartbreaking, but each one of us can make a difference in ending hunger and homelessness if we join together. Although there are agencies and ministries working tirelessly to eradicate hunger and homelessness nationally, and in Westmoreland County, the numbers of those in need continue to grow.
Being aware of the situation and helping others to understand the scope of the problem is crucial and helpful but just knowing is not enough. Each one of us can change a life by donating our time, our money and even items we aren’t using any more to local agencies combating hunger and homelessness on the front lines.
Here’s where to start:
-Connect with a local church, synagogue or other place of worship and become part of their mission team.
-Contact local food banks or homeless shelters and ask what needs they have and/or how you can volunteer. You can call 2-1-1, United Way’s free, 24/7, 3-digit phone number to connect with community services and agencies.
-Help needy individuals and families you know, any way you can.