After almost three years of struggling to stay afloat financially, Robin E. Carter M’13 lost her home. She and her four daughters were weeks from homelessness. The fear and hopelessness have never left the determined Oley, Pa., native, who is now pursuing a doctorate in leadership to find ways to bring the community’s knowledge and resources to bear on the problem.
The statistics are daunting. According to the latest government estimate, 633,782 people were homeless across the United States. Most, 62 percent, were individuals; 38 percent were families.
On any given day, more than 450 people in Berks County, Pa., — 37 percent of them women and children — don’t have a permanent residence, and some don’t know where they’ll sleep at night. The prolonged economic downturn has changed the face of homelessness, both nationally and in the Reading, Pa., area. Increasingly, the face belongs to someone you know.
“Your neighbors might be two weeks away from being homeless,” says Carter, a single mother who completed her Master of Arts in Liberal Studies with an emphasis in community leadership in May. “But you wouldn’t know because they have a nice home. A nice car. Nice clothes. But that’s the façade.”Carter, 47, grew up in Oley. The Reading of her childhood, a bustling, confident city with jobs for all, “had an identity and a sense of place,” she says. But the plants and factories packed up, the jobs evaporated — and residents had to leave their homes to find work in other counties.
Sometimes, they lost both — their jobs and their homes. Berks County averages 347 evictions a month, Carter’s research shows. Those evictions strain an overburdened emergency shelter system that serves both the chronically homeless, and those who face temporary or episodic bouts of homelessness due to job loss and budget cuts in federal and state safety nets.
Carter now has an academic’s grasp of the causes and consequences of homelessness in the city she looked forward to visiting as a child. For her capstone project, she drafted a strategic plan to help the Berks Coalition to End Homelessness (BCEH) — an organization of more than 60 agencies, businesses and community members dedicated to eradicating homelessness in Berks County — pursue its mission for the next five years.