‘Literally keeping people off the streets:’ United Way fights housing insecurity

January 25, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have been wide-ranging, shaping everything from the fight against food insecurity to how local non-profits are providing mental health services and support to families in need.

Housing security — an individual or family’s secure, unthreatened access to housing— has been one of the areas most impacted by the pandemic, with local agencies that fight housing insecurity reporting a significant jump in the number of people in need of assistance.

“From just March to October, we provided over 1,000 extra nights of shelter compared to the average of the same period in previous years,” said Morgan Wasikonis, executive director of Housing Transitions. “We provided approximately 1,600 nights of shelter the two preceding years — over this past year, we provided more than 2,600 nights of shelter.”

Working ‘on overdrive’

Housing Transitions is a local non-profit and partner agency of the Centre County United Way that shelters individuals experiencing homelessness, provides assistance to help prevent homelessness and continues to support and empower individuals after experiencing homelessness to help them achieve long-term housing security. The agency operates the Centre House Homeless Shelter, as well as a permanent supportive housing program for people with a documented disability who have experienced chronic homelessness.

Morgan Wasikonis, executive director of Housing Transitions

Morgan Wasikonis, executive director of Housing Transitions, works with a colleague on a client's goal sheet. Housing Transitions is a Centre County United Way partner agency that works to prevent homelessness, provide shelter to people experiencing homelessness, and support people post-homelessness to achieve long-term housing security.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

“One of our programs has really been on overdrive, where we can provide a security deposit, the first month of rent and a period of rental assistance,” Wasikonis said. “Our case manager has housed an extreme amount of people, and not just with us, but also partners like Centre Safe, the Youth Service Bureau and Out of the Cold. We work with everyone, to try to find long-term solutions for people experiencing homelessness.”

Centre Helps is another Centre County United Way partner agency that works closely with Housing Transitions and other service providers to fight housing insecurity. Centre County residents can call the agency’s 24/7 hotline at 814-237-5855 with any struggle they might be facing, including financial struggles, difficulty paying rent or other housing security issues. From there, trained hotline volunteers can connect callers with a Centre Helps basic needs case manager or other services available through one of the Centre County United Way’s other partner agencies, as best suits the caller’s individual needs.

Each year, one in three Centre County residents access the services provided by the Centre County United Way’s network of partner agencies, including Centre Helps and Housing Transitions — services and agencies that are supported by the Penn State United Way Campaign. Donations from the Penn State community make up approximately 40% of the total dollars raised for the Centre County United Way each year, reflecting Penn State’s commitment to community impact as a 21st century land-grant institution. Members of the University community are encouraged to visit UnitedWay.psu.edu to learn more, and to consider supporting the Centre County United Way through a monthly payroll deduction.

‘The nature of this crisis’

Elaina Seto, one of Centre Helps’ two basic needs case managers, said the pandemic’s sizeable impact on housing security is closely related to how the virus has disrupted employment for many workers across a wide range of industries, including retail, food service, landscaping, construction and outpatient healthcare. Although a federal eviction moratorium is in place, many families are still living in a state of uncertainty about their continued access to housing.

Centre Helps exterior

Centre Helps operates a 24/7 hotline — reachable at 814-237-5855 — open to Centre County residents to call with any challenge or struggle they might be facing, including housing insecurity. The agency works closely with other Centre County United Way partner agencies, and provides a range of services including basic needs case management.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell

“Before the pandemic, a lot of our work was short-term, where we were there to help someone through a crisis and they would be empowered to move forward from there,” Seto said. “Now what we’re seeing is those relationships extend as these families, originally hoping they would only be out of work for a few weeks, now out of work for months and months, are still in need of assistance.”

Support from the United Way continues to be an important resource for agencies like Centre Helps and Housing Transitions during the pandemic because it allows agencies to put those funds toward services that are otherwise difficult to obtain funding for, said Wasikonis — making the United Way “very responsive to the unique needs of each agency.”

“For people who are able to support the United Way, it is literally keeping people off the streets, because that is the nature of this crisis,” Seto said.

Learn more about how you can support the Centre County United Way at the Penn State United Way campaign website. Penn State employees are asked to consider supporting the United Way through a gift, no matter the size, using the University’s online payroll deduction donation form.

Last Updated January 26, 2021