TOWANDA — A pair of Bradford County Commissioners expressed disagreement Thursday surrounding the nature of homelessness in Bradford County.
The debate began after commissioners approved the submission of an application for a state emergency solution grant.
The commissioners applied for $100,000 worth of grant funds last year, but received only $50,000. This year, the county opted to apply for $175,000, although officials acknowledged that any awarded amount would likely be lower.
The grant would help Bradford County Human Services as well as the Endless Mountains Mission to provide support services for homeless Bradford County residents.
“This is part of a program that we’ve been progressing on for about three years now in order to get a better understanding of not just homelessness as we think of it,” Commissioner Ed Bustin said. “There’s a lot of other different kinds of homelessness and housing pressures on people in Bradford County.”
Bustin explained that officials put out a county-wide survey over the winter and, while acknowledging the experience was worthwhile, it likely didn’t fully capture the scope of homelessness in the county because of the cold weather.
“And in this case, it’s a very strict definition of homeless,” he said. “If you’re couch-surfing from friend to friend, you’re not considered homeless in this survey.
“So there’s a lot of people out there kind of caught in this ‘nether world’ so to speak, in that they’re not considered homeless, but they don’t have consistent housing,” Bustin continued.
However, Commissioner Doug McLinko expanded on the issue as a two-fold problem, citing the liability of homeowners that are renting to tenants.
“I think the state of Pennsylvania needs to get serious about protecting landlords from tenants,” he said. “Because when those couch-surfers end up in a home that’s rented — I just recently dealt with somebody who can’t get these druggies out of their house. They’re destroying it. People are coming and going. And guess what? That also makes the neighborhood dangerous, because you’re not bringing good people in here.
“We need to have a two-fold conversation, and I’m mad,” he continued. “Because to get someone out of your house is horrible. In the meantime, they’re in there cooking meth and having a great time destroying your property when you leased it in good faith.
“So along with conversation of helping those who need help, we have to separate it out from those who really need to be reprimanded and punished as they destroy peoples’ personal property and creating a bad environment and neighborhood,” McLinko stated.
While Bustin took note of the issues McLinko was pointing out, he said they were different from what he was talking about.
“We’re not talking about supporting or not supporting anybody,” Bustin said. “We’re talking about identifying an issue, right? If you don’t know who they are or where they are, how can we either help them or make them pay for the damages that they’re doing? All we’re asking is, ‘Who is it? Where are they?’ That’s a separate conversation.”
“To me, it’s all the same, and I just respectfully disagree,” McLinko replied. “I think it’s the same conversation. I think it starts with drug addiction and abuse. I think it’s the same conversation with a couple different avenues that you’re going to have to discuss. We’re on the same page, but I think the conversation needs to be expanded.”
“You’re focusing rightly on a specific issue that you’ve been exposed to,” Bustin said. “And that’s why you’re fired up. But my point is we can’t just say that to the exclusion of survivors of domestic abuse, children who are abused and escape their homes — they’re couch-surfers, too. Don’t put one definition on what we’re talking about. We’re talking about individuals within our community that need to be helped and/or dealt with.”
“I agree with you,” McLinko said. “I just get fired up, and it’s just a mess that gets passed down from the state to local level for us to figure out. But we’re on the same page.”