Pennsylvania Borough Gives Homeless the “Cold Shoulder”

SUGAR NOTCH, PA. — A regional advocate for the rights of the homeless says actions by Sugar Notch officials to deny shelter to homeless men may be based upon fear and a lack of knowledge.

About 40 homeless men were scheduled to receive temporary shelter at the Holy Family Roman Catholic church in Sugar Notch for a week beginning Jan. 11. About three dozen churches in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton region each shelter the homeless for one or two weeks a year. Professional staff usually work with, and stay with, the homeless. However, borough zoning officer Carl Alber, apparently acting under Council direction, issued a letter that threatened the church with a $500 fine for each day it housed the homeless. Councilman Herman Balas, a member of the church, said that Council was acting for safety and citizen welfare. The Rev. Joseph Kakareska told the media he has no plans to deny shelter to the homeless for the week. Sugar Notch is a town of about 950 residents, about five miles southwest of Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania.

A public council meeting, Jan. 4, led to a yelling contest among the Council and members of the audience; most of the Council and residents claimed the homeless could pose “problems,” with others claiming the problem had nothing to do with the homeless but with following proper zoning ordinances. However, the church is zoned R-1 (residential) and in a residential area. Council kicked the problem to the Zoning Commission, but indicated that if the church files an appeal, with a $350 fee, it would allow the homeless to stay in the church for a week. It’s an “olive branch,” claimed council president Charlene Tarnalicki. There was no ruling that if the church loses its appeal if it would still be liable for up to a $3,500 fine.

“This is not a zoning issue, but an issue of fear by residents,” says Gary F. Clark, executive director of the Northeast Pennsylvania Homeless Alliance. “Most homeless pose absolutely no threat to any citizen,” says Clark. The homeless, says Clark, often have day jobs, and are sheltered only in evenings. Clark says that with the Recession, more persons have been laid off from jobs they may have had for several years, and have been unable to meet mortgage payments on houses. Council’s concern about the homeless, according to Balas, was that they could be violent or be drug users.

However, Clark says that while some of the homeless may have alcohol- or drug-induced problems, most are “just trying to get by.” About 3.5 million people will be homeless at some point this year, with almost half being children, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. About 16,000 Pennsylvanians are homeless on any given night, according to the Pennsylvania Interagency Council on Homelessness. About one-third of homeless men are veterans, “many with post-traumatic stress disorder that keeps them from a stable life,” Clark says. It is unlikely, he says, that they pose any threat to public safety.

Clark points out that it is unacceptable during the Winter, when snow lies on the ground and temperatures drop into the teens, to have anyone “trying to survive on our streets.” Shelter, says Clark, “is a basic human need and many more problems are created when this need is not met.” The “true measure of a society,” says Clark, “is how it treats its most needy.”

The “movable shelter program,” run by Wilkes-Barre’s non-profit VISION program, and with the support of numerous churches that give temporary shelter and meals to the homeless, has had relatively few problems, says Clark. VISION director Vince Kabacinski told Council he has offers of legal support not only from local organizations but from some as far away as Arizona. “I didn’t ask Sugar Notch to become part of the problem with the ‘not in my backyard’ ” attitude, he said.

On a sign in front of the church is the message, “Jesus was homeless, too.”

Walter Brasch, during a 40-year work career in mass communications, has been a member of several unions, in both the private and public sectors. He is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of 16 books, including With Just Cause: Unionization of the American Journalist, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, and his latest Fracking Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Walter, or visit Walter's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Danny Ray said on January 7th, 2010 at 11:11am #

    The Government should force people to take the poor homeless off the street. The local government should have a list of empty beds and a homeless person should be assigned to each bed, then there would be no more homeless. The nerve of those selfish hicks not wanting homeless people in “their town”. The government has a duty to see that each person in this country has a place to stay and a full meal. People should open their homes to them and if they do not they should be forced to!!! I bet nearly every house in that miserable town has an extra bedroom, if they are not using it they have no right to it.

    To each according to his needs
    From each according to his abilities.

  2. rosemarie jackowski said on January 7th, 2010 at 11:31am #

    I was born and raised in Luzerne County. It is very sad to see what has happened there – not only in Sugar Notch but also Hazelton. The area has become a hot-bed of prejudice.

    Sadly there is some of that throughout the entire US. In the US it is socially acceptable to be prejudiced against the poor.

  3. bozh said on January 7th, 2010 at 2:02pm #

    No, not the gov’t, but ALL people shld provide bed and roof over an homeless P. It shld be law and not hinge on anyone’s good- or badwill.
    Suppose one thinks: right or wrong or true and false answers do not pertain to this phenomenon?
    In that case, err on the side of the weakest among us. Also, of necessary truth-right thing to do, there shld never be homelssness.

  4. lichen said on January 7th, 2010 at 5:49pm #

    Yes, housing is a human right–and it is the responsibility of the government to come up with a system of mixed subsidized housing whereby no one ever ends up homeless in the first place. That we have these scumbags (as well as some churches who end their food programs for the homeless because of anti-gay bias) making up stupid excuses (as if homeless people weren’t just as ‘dangerous’ if not more when they are desperate and freezing?) to discriminate and disinvest in their fellow humans. There is enough empty housing–completely empty and unutilized houses, apartment buildings, in this country to house everyone; and that number is growing as people are foreclosed upon so that the banks can let the houses sit there and rot.

  5. Danny Ray said on January 7th, 2010 at 6:27pm #

    We should form collectives and take over the abandoned buildings and houses. If the goverment will not help our fellow man we should rise up and do it ourselves.

  6. lichen said on January 7th, 2010 at 8:08pm #

    It isn’t lost on me that you have more sarcasm than sincerity, but there are already collectives doing that.

  7. Deadbeat said on January 7th, 2010 at 9:50pm #

    Put an end to “landlords” and to the owning more property than one needs. It is immoral for someone else to profit by others need for shelter. Everyone can only live in one place at any one time so there is absolutely no need for the hording of property. This practice must end. Also end mortgages. No one should be placed into debt just to have shelter.

    I agree with lichen, housing is a basic human right and the health care advocates missed an opportunity to tie housing and health care – the two areas where costs has skyrocketed forcing even more debt burden on workers.

  8. Maryb said on January 8th, 2010 at 2:32am #

    There seems to be little of the milk of human kindness to go with the sugar in the eponymous Sugar Notch. Poor people if they out in the cold. It is 27F and snowing there at the moment. Whilst snowed up here in the frozen UK, I have been looking through some statistics on Luzerne County. Nearly all of the towns have at least 10% of their small populations below the poverty line. On a tour of the town via Google’s street view, I noticed a few Amerikan flags. Some very loyal and patriotic citizens!

    One of the significant facts that Mr Brasch mentions is the proportion of homeless men that are veterans. There is an identical situation here in the UK. The discards from the financial collapses and the military adventures of the psychopathic politicians in our wonderful Empires are plain for all to see as they huddle under their cardboard and blankets.