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October 7, 2014

The Power to Speak for Justice: Charisma’s Story

from the Rev. Matthew Lenahan, Pastor, Zion Lutheran, Akron PA

Her name is Charisma.

I met her and her two children about a year ago at our church’s monthly breakfast and food distribution. Over the course of the next year, she was drawn into our church’s orbit, seeking a sense of belonging to a community of practicing believers. She has participated in worship. She had some financial trouble and a rocky relationship with a boyfriend. In May, she lost her job. In July, her electric service was shut off in her apartment because of unpaid bills. In August, she became homeless. Since May, she has become more dependent on faith and on her Christian community. When her electric was shut off, we invited her family to use the church kitchen and refrigeration to keep their food and cook their meals. After she became homeless, she slept in her car in the church’s parking lot, stayed with a sister in Maryland, and stayed at the Water Street Mission. She has engaged every helping institution in the county for assistance. Her homelessness compromises her child custody agreement with her ex-husband. Her situation exposes our in-hospitality as a community and as a church.

Our goal was to get her re-housed quickly. I became aware of an available, affordable apartment in our community. She applied. I advocated for her with the property manager and owner, promising to reduce their sense of risk by paying for her security deposit, first month’s rent, and working with her to keep her on track. She had a deposit of community resources to bring to the table but they denied her. Charisma had already connected through the 211 helpline to the existing community services in Lancaster, expecting to be re-housed within a few weeks. Instead, she is experiencing the county’s limited capacity to address the needs of low income households. There is inadequate transitional housing and family sheltering here. According to the Housing Alliance of PA there are only 27 available apartments per 100 extremely low income households. There is a deficit of 8,939 affordable and available rental units for low income residents. The need far exceeds the available housing stock in Lancaster.

Charisma has unemployment income and is eagerly applying for work. But, employers are looking for someone with a stable and secure household. Rental property managers/owners are looking to rent exclusively to people with employment and adequate income. So, she is stuck. We have a system in place to deal with homelessness and low income residents. That system is too small and inadequate to serve the population in need. So, Tracey DePasquale invited us to conduct legislative visits with the Housing Alliance. We went to the capitol to meet with legislators. Charisma told her story with eloquence and grace, as part of the Housing Alliance’s work to enact legislation that would expand the State Housing Trust Fund. Our hope is that the State Housing Trust Fund might build and strengthen capacity to adequately house low income families in every county in PA. Charisma remains hopeful and courageous despite her challenges. Her faith motivates her to act on behalf of other Lancaster residents and low income Pennsylvanians. Charisma has found the power to speak for justice in her own story. She hopes to inspire others to find theirs.

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