Numerous local nonprofits, including Home of the Sparrow and Habitat for Humanity of Chester County, in partnership with Chester County Commissioner Josh Maxwell, hosted a legislative gathering this week at the West Chester University Graduate Center. The goal of the gathering was to share voices heard during recently held housing focus groups, and to explore ways legislators and community groups can work together to ensure affordable and accessible housing is available to all residents of Chester County.
The legislative gathering followed a series of six focus group sessions hosted by more nonprofits including Orion Communities, Act in Faith of Greater West Chester, Kennett Area Community Service, Community Youth and Women’s Alliance, Oxford Area Neighborhood Services, Oxford Silo, Black Women of Chester County in Action, and the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness in partnership with The Housing Alliance of PA.
The goal of the focus groups was listening to and lifting the voices of people with lived experience and expertise to make substantial positive changes in the rust belt, rural, and inner ring suburb communities. A total of 61 individuals shared their testimonies and experiences regarding housing in Chester County.
The event hosted by Commissioner Maxwell featured presentations from Cheryl Miles, Chairwoman of Black Women of Chester County in Action, Wendy Gaynor from Orion Communities, and a video compilation of resident’s housing stories.
Following the presentation, a “Call to Action” was presented jointly by Kris Keller, Executive Director of Orion Communities, Dale Gravett, Executive Director for the Housing Authority of Chester County, Matrie Johnson, Director of Programs at Home of the Sparrow, Leandria Hall, Program Director for Special Programs at Oxford Area Neighborhood Services, Amy Scheuren, Program Director at Kennett Area Community Service, and Rob Henry, Administrator for the Chester County Partnership to End Homelessness
Said Cheryl Miles said in her opening remarks, “We have to ensure that low-income individuals have access to safe, decent, affordable, housing. We chose to amplify residents’ voices so as we are making important decisions about housing in Chester County, we are taking into consideration this particular population and working for low-income residents.”
Kris Keller spoke to the residents most at need.
“When we talk about low and extremely low-income families, it’s helpful to remember who this includes – child and elder care workers, bank tellers, grocery store staff, lawn care providers, support staff – people who help keep everyone’s lives running smoothly,” Keller said. “But it also includes elders and neighbors who have a disability, who are trying to make ends meet with just social security income.”
Leandria Hall noted the differences between the HUD definition of homelessness and the definition from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Act. “We should address those most at risk,” Hall said, “but it is also clear that we as a community need to be more proactive to get care or resources to those that have been diverted from the street, particularly when that diversion has been short lived.”
The program continued with a presentation by Amy Scheuren explaining how diversion programs delay or prevent a legal declaration of homelessness based on the HUD definition.
“In the short term, Chester County can increase support, funding, and case management for diversion services,” said Scheuran. “This funding and support should be flexible in nature due to the various difficult situations that residents find themselves in.”
In his call to action regarding Fair Housing Guidelines, Rob Henry said, “We need to work together to create a community in which ALL Chester County residents have fair, equal, and equitable access to housing opportunities and services to improve their health, quality of life, and financial stability. This event serves as an example of that work, but also how much work still remains to be done.”
In closing remarks, Mayor Peter Urscheler said, “It is really up to each and every one of us to play a role in figuring out this (housing) challenge. This is a society challenge, and it will take all of us in the community working together.” Mayor Urscheler continued, “My dream is that you drive down the street and you can’t tell the difference in affordable or market rate housing because we should be a community.”
The event concluded with remarks from US Representative Chrissy Houlahan.
“While access to quality and affordable housing is an issue across the county, it is particularly acute here in the 6th Congressional District, especially in Chester County,” she said.
“The pathway to affordable housing begins with fairness and equity for all. The issue of equity and equality in not just an issue of the individual, it is in fact an economic issue for all of us, a health issue for all of us, and a human rights issue for all of us in the community.”