Keystone Mission is in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. HOPE is found HERE!

Luzerne County Council Complete ARPA Visit to Keystone Mission 

Contributed by Jennifer Learn-Andes, Times Leader 

Several Luzerne County Council members visited Keystone Mission’s Innovation Center for Homeless and Poverty in Wilkes-Barre Monday as part of an ongoing tour of American Rescue Plan funding recipients.

Located in the Thomas C. Thomas Building, 90 E Union St., the facility opened in October and is available to men and women in need weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

It provides breakfast, a place to shower and wash clothes, access to community resources, use of a computer and phone, donated clothing and supplies and connection to services that may help them get off the streets.

The tour was scheduled as the center was closing up for the day out of respect to the privacy of those inside, particularly because the media was present and taking photographs, said Danielle O. Keith-Alexandre, CEO/Executive Director of Keystone Mission.

Keith-Alexandre and the staff of six are protective of those seeking a safe space in their center, she said. They are called “guests,” not clients, and treated with dignity no matter how unkempt they are, she said.

“Just loving people is what drives us,” she said.

Kathy Regan, who oversees operations and programming, said many guests have forgotten what it’s like to have someone speak kindly to them.

Regan recalled getting to know one of the regulars, an elderly man named William. A look of surprise and then happiness washed over his face when she greeted him good morning by name.

Guests already were waiting outside when she arrived at the center shortly before 9 a.m. Monday with some supplies in her vehicle. They recognized her and rushed over to help her carry items from her vehicle, she said.

“The homeless aren’t always who you think they are,” Regan said.

The civility is expected to go both ways. Guests must say please if they are asking for something and follow the rules. Regan and Keith-Alexandre said they rarely have to intervene because the guests keep each other in line.

In total, 56 guests were at the center on Monday, which falls within the average 50 to 60 per day. To date, 307 different homeless individuals have accessed center services since the October opening.

Josh McGrath, 27, was among those packing up belongings as council members arrived for Monday’s tour. He offered to share his experience.

McGrath said he has been homeless for approximately a year due to family circumstances and appreciates the welcoming daytime space, showers and staff willing to provide guidance.

“I think it has helped a lot,” McGrath said.

He has signed up for the Marines and is scheduled for basic training in a week.

“If it wasn’t for this place, that wouldn’t be happening,” McGrath said.

Another guest said more services are needed because the homeless population is rising in this area.

The faith-based, nonprofit Keystone Mission eventually wants to open the center on weekends and offer a permanent shelter but must ensure it has funding that will make any expanded services sustainable, Keith-Alexandre said. She doesn’t want to provide something new to the vulnerable population and then take it away due to poor planning.

The center is open as a seasonal Code Blue Emergency Shelter for up to 50 to sleep during the coldest days of winter. The city determines when a Code Blue is necessary based on weather conditions.

On Monday’s tour, council members saw the large day room containing tables that are swapped for cots during Code Blue.

Many guests stay the entire duration the center is open except for a brief departure to the soup kitchen for lunch.

The tour group passed by a table holding neatly folded towels and soap for showers, which must be scheduled in increments to make sure there is enough hot water for everyone.

Another room contained shelves and racks of donated clothing, coats and shoes available to the guests.

Council Chairman John Lombardo asked if mental health services are provided.

Regan said referrals are made. Mental health treatment is challenging for the homeless, especially if they rely on medication that may be stolen from them on the streets, she said.

She had to administer the antidote Narcan last week on a man who had been smoking marijuana, not realizing it was laced with fentanyl.

“You really do wear many hats here,” replied Council Vice Chairman Brian Thornton.

Keith-Alexandre said they see people at their worst and best and always remain hopeful those walking through the door will learn to function independently and end up in permanent housing. Guests are encouraged to work with a center caseworker, vocational specialist and housing specialist.

Council allocated $500,000 toward the center activation, the purchase of a van that will be used in part for medical appointment transports and a plan to purchase and rehabilitate a blighted property to provide temporary housing to families working to get back on their feet, Keith-Alexandre said.

Lombardo said he was impressed with the center and believes it is further evidence of county American Rescue funding going to those “truly in need.”

The ongoing council tour aims to show the public the uses of $55 million in awards to more than 100 outside entities.

Councilwoman LeeAnn McDermott described the center staff and volunteers as “special people” for providing compassionate services to the homeless.

“These people are willing to accept them and treat them like human beings. That’s a wonderful thing,” McDermott said.

Councilman Jimmy Sabatino said the center fills a void and urged residents to consider donating toiletries, towels and some of the many items needed.

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