New home for men's shelter approved in Wilkes-Barre
A homeless shelter in Wilkes-Barre has rotated between local churches for decades. But the Diocese of Scranton, which took over the operation about ten years ago, finally has plans to put down roots and add amenities.
“We haven’t had a permanent location ever,” said Harry Lyons, shelter program supervisor with Catholic Social Services, the Diocese’s nonprofit. “The pandemic really emphasized how much we needed that, because people couldn’t host us anymore. It became a real problem for us.”
On April 20, the City of Wilkes-Barre granted zoning approval to Catholic Social Services (CSS) to eventually move its emergency housing program for men into the second floor of the St. Vincent de Paul Kitchen. The Diocese already owns the building on East Jackson Street where volunteers serve free meals at 11 a.m. each day.
Lyons said he wasn’t aware of any pushback from the community in the zoning process.
“A lot of my clients are utilizing the kitchen every day anyway. We did not have anybody show up at the meeting and speak against us. We got a letter from King’s College, a letter of support,” he said.
Lyons said an earlier program for homeless men in Wilkes-Barre called VISION operated in the 80s. It offered a similar mobile shelter model before CSS carried on the work and changed the name.
Now called Mother Teresa’s Haven, the shelter has had a long-term stay at St. Mary’s Church of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Wilkes-Barre for a little over two years. But the lower floor of St. Mary’s wasn’t meant to host the program for this long, Lyons said. In the past, churches would take turns every few weeks allowing men to seek shelter and sleep on cots.
“We knew coming in it was never going to be a permanent spot. It’s a beautiful space,” Lyons said, while giving WVIA News a tour at St. Mary’s. “I’d love for it to be permanent.”
A timeline for the move depends on construction at the new spot, and Lyons said he’s hopeful that St. Mary’s will continue hosting until the new place is ready. Catholic Social Services can’t start building at St. Vincent until August at the very earliest, when a second floor tenant’s lease is scheduled to end.
The nonprofit will then add showers and upgrade the space, which is already handicap accessible thanks to an elevator. Lyons said most of the churches that have hosted Mother Teresa’s Haven in the past couldn't offer a place to wash up.
The shelter can currently host up to 24 men, where collapsible cots are spread out across an open floor plan at St. Mary’s finished basement, formerly a daycare. CSS will likely trade the cots for bunk beds when the shelter moves across town to St. Vincent de Paul. The city approved 20-24 beds at the new location, but the space is considerably smaller, said Lyons.
"We get a lot of people who are only here a few nights and we never see them again, but it’s yours for up to 30 nights,” Lyons said. He added that CSS tries to connect every client with a more permanent housing solution.
Men can enter the shelter at 5 p.m. but must leave by 7 the next morning. During that time, they’re offered dinner and breakfast. That model is expected to remain the same after the move, according to Lyons.
Other nearby programs
In order to stay at Mother Teresa’s Haven, men must be residents of Luzerne County and pass a federal sex offender registry background check. Lyons said non-residents can stay for a few nights as a courtesy and are given information about other shelters, like the CSS program in Lackawanna County. He refers women to Ruth’s Place, a nearby shelter run by Volunteers of America (VOA), or Divine Providence, a Diocese shelter for all genders in Hazleton.
A man named Don, who stayed at St. Mary’s last week, said showers would be a welcome addition at the new shelter. He said he misses being able to take one regularly. He also said Wilkes-Barre could use a permanent place that offers daytime services for people experiencing homelessness.
Crystal Kotlowski, NEPA director at Volunteers of America, agrees.
VOA’s Give Hope homeless outreach program has case managers on hand and a food pantry during the day, but Kotlowski said a 24/7 men’s shelter is also needed in Wilkes-Barre.
A modular unit was added to the back parking lot at VOA’s North River Street location, Kotlowski said, because renting a separate place for homeless services felt impossible to find.
“I think that there’s a lot of ‘not in my backyard’ type of feeling here,” Kotlowski said.
She added that although Ruth’s Place is a women-only shelter, the organization can provide shower access to men. VOA employees transport men to an apartment that was built within Ruth’s Place during the pandemic in order for clients to quarantine when sick.
A representative from St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Wilkes-Barre said people can access a food pantry and clothing closet on Mondays and Wednesdays from 1 to 3 p.m, but their Reach shelter is no longer in operation. Keystone Mission, with locations in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, has long-term programming for men in their Transformation Center.