Vigil honors the unsheltered York-area people who died in 2022

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Parishioners lined up ten pairs of shoes outside Union Evangelical Lutheran Church on Wednesday night to commemorate the unsheltered York-area people who died this year.

“There’s at least 10,” said Kelly Blechertas, program coordinator for the York County Coalition on Homelessness. “There may be others.”

Some were victims of crime. At least four died during cold weather like what York County experienced this week. All of them, Blechartas said, are worthy of remembrance.

The shoes, she said, will be given to others in need.

Blechertas said the exact number of deaths in the homeless community is unknown. That information is tracked in a narrative in the coroner's report but generally hasn't been easy to monitor.

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That, however, will change in 2023.

Starting in January, County Coroner Pam Gay said her office will track the sheltered status — assuming it is known — in an informal spreadsheet. It will help the various organizations that provide services to York County's unhoused population and potentially spot trends at the local level.

Kelly Blechertas, Program Coordinator for the York County Coalition on Homelessness, on right, speaking alongside Robin Shearer, from Friends and Neighbors, at the vigil for the unhoused lives lost this year at Union Lutheran Church in York on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Meanwhile, a small group of people gathered Wednesday night to remember the unsheltered people who died in the last year.

During the vigil, the Rev. Joel Folkemer said to the small group standing on the church stairs and sidewalk, they had gathered on the longest night to recognize those who died and were unsheltered this past year. 

“I heard seven out of 10 people are just one emergency away from being on the street,” said the Rev. Joel Folkemer, of Union Evangelical.

That's a sobering statistic, Folkemer added, noting that homelessness can affect anyone.

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Frank Conrad stopped at the vigil with his cart full of bedding and clothes.

“It’s nice to see that they care, actually,” said Conrad, who himself was carrying his possessions to a safe space for the night.

Blechertas said there are at least 350 people countywide who are living on the streets or in emergency shelters. Another 2,000 rely on various affordable housing programs.

York remembers the unhoused lives lost this year at Union Lutheran Church in York on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

“But those are only a fraction of the people that we know that are experiencing homelessness,” she said. “Not everyone on the street will approach and look for those types of resources.”

And these figures don't account for those in unstable housing, meaning they have a roof over their head but it’s not theirs, Blechertas said.

“This is a baseline,” she said, explaining they know the number is “significantly higher than that.”

No one organization can address this, she added.

“People want to help and we want the community to help because this is a community,” said Robin Shearer, executive director of Friends & Neighbors of Pennsylvania, Inc. 

Community members lined up 10 pairs of shoes and 10 candles in rememberance of the unhoused lives lost this year at Union Lutheran Church in York on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Her organization sends out crews regularly to check spots where they know the unsheltered community resides. The crews offer them medical help and will escort them to shelters. They also provide sleeping bags, phones and transportation stipends.

Shearer, however, warned listeners a way to not help is by leaving mattresses, raw food or milk at Union’s doorsteps without notice. When that happens, neighbors call and complain. Police may come by and force the people sleeping on Union’s steps to move elsewhere. 

The social workers then lose track of that person, Shearer said. Those unhoused individuals who have mobility or other health issues may get hurt while searching for a new place to sleep.

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For those wishing to donate sooner, Blechertas recommended going directly to the organizations associated with York County Coalition on Homelessness, including Covenant House of Pennsylvania, Friends & Neighbors of Pennsylvania and Valley Youth House. Each group has a wishlist that they will update regularly, she said. 

Selena Generett, on left, and Pastor Beth Folkemer, on right, both from York, praying at the vigil for the unhoused lives lost this year at Union Lutheran Church in York on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Monetary donations to the organizations could also be a good way to help out. 

“I know that people struggle with monetary donations,” she said, explaining that even $20 can go to help people with their actual needs. For instance, the donation can help pay for a copy of their birth certificate or prescriptions. 

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The coalition will host a forum on homelessness Feb. 3 at 6:30 p.m. at York College Center for Community Engagement, 59 E. Market St. 

For those looking for shelter this weekend, call LifePath before 5:30 to check in at the women’s shelter, at 717-845-5947, or the men’s shelter at 717-472-8890. They will send the overflow to a York C.A.R.E.S. shelter if it’s open. That shelter, at Asbury United Methodist Church, can be reached at 717-843-7615. Friends & Neighbors also has an outreach hotline, 717-699-8445.

There will be a free community Christmas dinner from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 25 at St. Matthew Lutheran Church at 839 W. Market Street, York. 

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.