Actor, county focus on plight of homeless

Chester County can add Hollywood actor Richard Gere to the growing list of people assisting with Decade to Doorways, its ambitious 10-year plan to prevent and end homelessness in the county – even if Gere’s contribution was inadvertent.

Richard Gere gives an evocative performance as a homeless man in 'Time out of Mind.'

Richard Gere gives an evocative performance as a homeless man in 'Time Out of Mind.'

A free screening of his provocative 2015 film, “Time Out of Mind,” at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville on Wednesday, March 10, served as a springboard for calling attention to the problem of homelessness. It attracted an audience of several hundred.

Lauren E. Hutzel, administrator of Decade to Doorways, introduced the film with some sobering statistics. Despite Chester County’s affluence, 615 people experience homelessness on any given night. During the past year, 350 of the people who went through the system were under the age of 17, and more than half of them were infants and toddlers.

Even more troubling, 51 percent of the people in need of emergency shelter who called ConnectPoints, a county hotline, had to be turned away because beds weren’t available.

Hutzel explained that Decade to Doorways oversees about 35 organizations that work daily to provide emergency or transitional shelter, supportive services, permanent housing, and prevention services. She said a major obstacle to solving the problems involves debunking the many myths that exist about the homeless.

Four of the primary ones are that street people make up the majority of the homeless population (the actual number is 15 percent), that some homeless people choose that life, that homelessness cannot be ended, and that individuals can’t do anything to prevent homelessness, she said.

Hutzel said “the vast majority of chronically homeless people are extremely vulnerable, have disabling conditions, may not be on the medication they need to function, were victims of abuse, and do not have the benefit of supportive relationships with capacity to help.”

Recent statistics found that only 30 percent of Americans have enough liquid savings to replace one month of income, Hutzel said. That means that if 20 people suddenly lost their jobs – not uncommon in today’s economy – only 14 would be able to make it for a month without severe repercussions. “Fact: No one chooses this life. It just happens,” she said.

Although ending homelessness sounds like a virtually impossible task, several counties in the area have succeeded in ending veterans’ homelessness. One key need is to ensure that the supply of housing exceeds the demand, she said.

“Henry Ford, the creator of the seemingly impossible, said: 'Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right,'" said Hutzel. “So the fact is, if we have the right mindset, we can do this.”

Finally, Hutzel said individuals can contribute to the solution in myriad ways – from spreading the word to help change perceptions to volunteering with organizations committed to preventing and ending homelessness, such as Family Promise of Southern Chester County, Kennett Area Community Services, Safe Harbor, and the Domestic Violence Center.

Another way to get involved is to attend the Decade to Doorways’ 2016 Data Release: Homelessness in Chester County. This free event will provide current information on the Decade to Doorways' Plan to prevent and end homelessness. It will be held on Thursday, March 24, from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the third-floor cafeteria at the Government Services Center, 601 Westtown Road. Click here to RSVP.

Hutzel said Gere’s film, an unflinching look at a homeless man’s struggle to survive in New York City, might make some members of the audience uncomfortable.

“You may leave feeling unsettled and frustrated, but that’s precisely the point,” Hutzel said. “I hope you will leave this theatre frustrated enough to do something. Tell someone, give something, and get involved.”

For more information on Decade to Doorways, visit http://www.decadetodoorways.org.

 

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About Kathleen Brady Shea

Kathleen Brady Shea, a nearly lifelong area resident, has been reporting on local news for several decades, including 19 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She believes that journalists provide a vital watchdog service in the community, and she embraces that commitment. In addition to unearthing news, she also enjoys digging up dirt in her garden, a hobby that frequently fosters Longwood Gardens envy. Along with her husband, Pete, she lives in a historic residence near the Brandywine Battlefield, a property that is also home to a sheep, a goat, and a passel of fish.

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