Could York see an influx of unhoused people as Harrisburg cracks down?

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

York-area service organizations are preparing for a possible influx of unhoused individuals in the coming weeks following a sweep of Harrisburg's largest homeless encampment.

Harrisburg officials, citing public health and safety concerns, began spreading the word more than a week ago to those who'd set up tents and lean-tos under the Mulberry Street bridge: Pack up your belongings and leave the area for good.

“Anytime anything like this happens in nearby counties, people migrate,” said Robin Shearer, executive director of the York City-based Friends & Neighbors.

In the absence of long-term stable housing, Shearer and others say Harrisburg's homeless will seek out other places to stay with access to public transportation and other essentials, such as food and medical care. York, which has always had strong ties to the capital city, is a natural fit.

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Earlier this week, a couple who formerly lived unhoused in the York area visited the Harrisburg encampment. After fleeing a dangerous situation in York, they lived for a time under the Mulberry Street bridge before finding temporary shelter.

“We came here from York because we were homeless there,” said Nicole Kozlowski, explaining that they moved to Harrisburg because she grew up near the city.

Corey Nevadomsky, on left, and Nicole Kozlowski, on right, former residents at the Mulberry St. encampment in Harrisburg on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

Kozlowski and her partner, Corey Nevadomsky, still have friends in the encampment. Had they not found a place to live, they'd now be scrambling to figure out where to go next.

“It’s people’s homes,” Nevadomsky said. "Even if it is a tent," he added, it's still home.

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Harrisburg city officials initially planned to sweep the encampment on Thursday but, as city spokesperson Matt Maisel said, they chose to give the encampment's residents the weekend to figure out new accommodations.

“We won’t ask anyone to leave in a rainstorm,” Maisel said.  

At the encampment Wednesday, residents told The York Dispatch that the new deadline was Sunday. The city announced a news conference Monday to share further details with the media.

Maisel said the encampment was being swept because of rising crime in the area — police have responded to 16 calls under the bridge since Nov. 1 — as well as what he described as a public health emergency. He said people often drop food off in the area that, in turn, attracts rats.

“This was the tipping point in determining there was a health and safety emergency,” he said. 

The rats are a familiar problem for Kozlowski, Nevadomsky and other current and former encampment residents.

“They’re mini dogs,” Nevadomsky said of the rats.

Kozlowski disagreed: “They’re like little cats.”

“Bubbles”, seen here,  and her partner Jason, former residents at the Mulberry St. encampment, moving from there to the PENNDOT site in Harrisburg on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

She added that not everyone at the encampment is causing the problem. It just gets that way after a while because there’s no regular trash service. If the city offered regular trash service, she said, there wouldn't be a public health emergency.

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The couple's own story illustrates the hardship facing the unhoused. Even with steady work, affording an apartment — as well as utilities and everything else — is difficult. One person offered them a place to live in exchange for helping to fix it up. Then Nevadomsky's boss was supposed to help them relocate to Texas.

Those opportunities fell through.

“Every time we are going a little bit closer to getting off the damn street,” Nevadomsky said, “it just pulls it out from under us every single time.”

Currently, the couple live in a house with no running water or electricity. A heater with a propane tank keeps them warm this winter. They concede the living situations aren't ideal.

“It’s better than being on the street,” Nevadomsky said. 

Aid group workers and volunteers helping residents at the Mulberry St. encampment in Harrisburg on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

A short distance away, another couple — who asked to be identified by their first names only — worked to save their gear before the sweep. Bubbles was untying the tent of her partner, Jason.

Bubbles recently left the hospital following a seizure. It was there that she learned about the pending Mulberry Street bridge eviction. The couple plan to relocate across town, to another homeless encampment along South Front Street by the Susquehanna River.

Other Mulberry Street residents, including a man named Nephew and his two friends, Dwayne and Shawn, were angry. 

“I plan to be here as much as possible and stay as long as I can,” Nephew said from inside his tent.

His tent, covered in tarps, backed up against the bridge's concrete pillar. His two friends gathered under a canopy that separated Nephew's tent from another. 

"I’m used to having this place, a safety net, so to speak, when I have to,” said Shawn, adding that the eviction came suddenly. Leaving the bridge underpass means uprooting his life, he said.

Shawn, seen here, along with other residents at the Mulberry St. encampment in Harrisburg on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

Nephew said the camp is within walking distance of social services, such as food pantries and medical aid. But Harrisburg's planned relocation area — a parking lot off Cameron Street — is further from such services, he said.

“There’s no resources down [there],” he said.

Bill Christian, director of the men’s shelter at Harrisburg's Bethesda Mission, said the city was doing as much as possible to ensure residents could continue to access the services they are using. He expected many of them to stay in the area because of the connections they made at the Mulberry Street camp.

Shearer said it's impossible to predict how many Dauphin County residents could end up in the York area. She noted that the code blue shelters in York and Adams counties could be one draw, especially since the coming week is forecast to be cold and wet.

Kelly Blechertas, program coordinator of the York County Coalition on Homelessness, said any migration that occurs could take some time.

“It doesn’t really happen en masse,” she said. “It tends to be more of a trickle than a gush.”

“Bubbles” and her partner Jason, former residents at the Mulberry St. encampment, moving from there to the PENNDOT site in Harrisburg on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.

Nonetheless, the York County homeless advocates empathize with Harrisburg's situation.

Blechertas said York residents will do the same thing Harrisburg officials complain about: Drop off large amounts of food that sits out and eventually becomes trash. Residents won’t eat the food because they don’t know how long it has been sitting out, she said. Eventually, the rats come.

Violence can also be a problem at York County's unhoused gathering places. Blechertas and Shearer both noted that the conflicts don't always start with the unsheltered.

“We have experienced similar things in York County where people who are housed are coming into areas where people who are experiencing street homelessness are staying,” Blechertas said. 

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The local organizations are preparing for the potential new wave, much as they do for a snowstorm. They will offer weather-proof gear to those in need. Blechertas said many who come down will only be able to take what they can carry — and their gear may be worn. 

“The stuff that people are using to live in is not housing,” she said, explaining that it’s not meant for long-term living. 

Shearer added that they are seeing a lot of new faces lately. There are more unsheltered people because they can’t get the services they need, she said. Others may have some money at hand, she said, but not enough to find an apartment. 

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