At Harrisburg encampment for the unhoused, a temporary solution to a longstanding problem

Yolanda and Carlos prepared group meals shared with other unhoused individuals (Capital-Star photo by Frank Pizzoli).

It’s a calm, sunny day in April, and Aisha Mobley has parked her van along a stretch of the Capital Area Greenbelt, a 20-mile loop running through and around Harrisburg and its suburbs that overlaps with wooded areas, urban offices, residential neighborhoods, and scenic parks.

Mobley, the community mobilization and outreach coordinator for the Christian Churches United of the Tri-County Area Help Ministry, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit established in 1978 to serve those facing homelessness, poverty, or incarceration in Dauphin, Cumberland, and Perry Counties, is helping an unhoused person sort through clothes and food items packed into the back of her van.

“I don’t like it when our folks get a bad rap,” Mobley told the Capital-Star, referring to recent descriptions of the Greenbelt as diminished with the unhoused taking up residence along portions of the trail.

“Instead of nature in its unspoiled state, there are more ramshackle tents and garbage-strewn camps,” one recent media account asserted.

Right now, Harrisburg’s unhoused community is at the center of a vigorous public policy debate over how to serve and help a growing encampment of unhoused people who have taken up residence in the Magnolia Street area of the Greenbelt.

Twenty to 30 people relocated there in January after Harrisburg city officials cleared out an encampment under the Mulberry Street Bridge, just blocks from the state Capitol.

That same month, officials at the Capital Area Greenbelt Association said they’d agreed to allowing the trail to serve as a “temporary location for a few individuals.” Contacted by the Capital-Star for an update on the current situation, a spokesperson declined to comment. 

Jan. 21, 2023 statement from the Capital Area Greenbelt Association:

Part of what makes the Capital Area Greenbelt so special is that it is all-inclusive. We pride ourselves on having a trail through the City of Harrisburg that everyone has access to, no matter where – or how — you live. Recently, city officials approached us asking for help. We understand the current situation involving the Mulberry Street Bridge poses serious health concerns that must be addressed. They identified an area along the trail right off of South Cameron Street which could be used as a temporary location for a few displaced individuals. We were assured by the City that this will not inhibit the safety and enjoyability for anyone riding, walking, or riding along the Greenbelt. We have a tremendous partnership with the City of Harrisburg and all of you who have made a figurative home along the Greenbelt. Now, we’re welcoming a few new guests who are making their home along the Greenbelt for a few weeks. The Capital Area Greenbelt Association looks forward to working with the City on implementing this space and making sure these individuals have a safe place to stay.”

Mobley’s work is part of a coordinated effort known as the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness (CACH), a nonprofit with more than 100 member organizations, agencies, churches, and other nonprofits assisting the homeless. The coalition meets in a conference call every Wednesday in order to plan out services to encampments.

Dennise Hill, who leads Harrisburg City’s Department of Building and Housing, told the Capital-Star in an email that “the Greenbelt Association has been in contact with the current administration about the path forward of relocating remaining encampment residents as well as returning the site at Magnolia Street to its previous/improved condition.”

The “same resources that were offered at the beginning of this process – access to outreach workers to ensure continuity of care – will be offered to residents as they relocate to a more suitable housing option,” she said.

Residents ended up along Magnolia Street when the city cleared the Mulberry Street Bridge area in order to exterminate rodents causing health hazards.

“Extermination efforts are coming to an end at the former Mulberry Street encampment,” Hill said. Information provided from the exterminator has shown that the health hazard caused by rodents has been mitigated, Hill said.

Continuation of that process will now fall to the owner of the property [the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation]. Hill clarified that “Of the 20 to 30 individuals identified as experiencing homelessness and who were living at the encampment, all have found another housing option and none are currently living at the Magnolia Street site.

Not all individuals have decided to seek shelter, she said. And some are still utilizing resources of other smaller, safer encampments.

“However, several have found another housing option meaning they entered treatment, relocated out of state with family, entered into emergency shelter(s), or found private housing),” Hill told the Capital-Star.

One of the management challenges of working with the unhoused is maintaining durable census information on who lives in what encampments. 

That’s where Mobley’s coordination fits in. Hill currently serves as president of the Capital Area Coalition on Homelessness. The group’s subcommittees meet at least monthly. 

The coalition was instrumental in talking directly to Harrisburg Mayor Wanda Williams, Hill said, “to ensure the needs of individuals experiencing homelessness at the Mulberry Street encampment were met during the temporary relocation efforts” while the rodent infestation was cleared.

Dwayne joins other unhoused campmates in gathering sellable scraps. (Capital-Star photo by Frank Pizzoli)

Mobley functions as a single point of entry when an unhoused person is looking for permanent housing in Dauphin County.

The Capital-Star accompanied Mobley on a recent camp visit during which time several unhoused people came forward to share their stories.

Dwayne, 47, has been homeless for the last several years. 

He recently moved from the Mulberry Street camp to his present location along the trail. He and Mobley were putting the finishing touches on his housing application. 

“I perform what’s called a Coordinated Entry Assessment, which takes into account all aspects of a person’s life – health status, special needs, how they became homeless, notable life traumas, and drug and alcohol issues,” Mobley explained.

Her assessments are part of a database called Homeless Management Information System maintained by CACH. 

“It’s important for people to know there’s a lot of daily coordination of services. Getting people stable is our goal,” Mobley said. Coordinated services are key to Dwayne’s success. He will be hospitalized for surgery in a few days, after which he will be able to recuperate in a motel room rather than his present camp location.

Each part of Dwayne’s supportive services may represent a different member organization of CACH. 

“There’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye,” Mobley said. 

UPMC provides ‘street medicine,’ Dauphin County Library System provides access to its mobile unit, the Salvation Army provides food boxes. “This is a totally coordinated effort. That’s how, for example, we were able to have water spigots put on fire hydrants and the placement of [portable toilets],” Mobley said.

Yolanda, 45, is a homeless veteran who entered the Army at 17 but left after four years.

“I was raped in the military,” she said. She’s been homeless on and off for about the last 6 years. 

She shares her life now with Carlos, 61, who has been homeless for about a year.

They proudly show their living space which includes a fire pit Yolanda dug for cooking large meals. The couple was up until 4 a.m. preparing donated, fresh trout into a meal they will share with others.

“There are so many moving parts to helping the homeless. We got to coordinate like with the fire hydrants getting spigots on them,” Carlos said. He thinks his age is also a factor in his current struggle. “I’m 61 years old so who’s going to hire me? I’m as healthy as a horse but it’s really hard trying to get a new start at this age,” he said.

One homeless man, 44, originally from Maryland, told the Capital-Star his ‘new start’ is to actually live outside with his trusted dog. He declined to identify himself.

 “I was abused as a child – verbally, mentally, and physically – by an abusive stepfather. My biological father killed himself when I was two years old,” he said, not comfortable using his name for our interview.

“My stepfather was a Navy boxer. He’d beat me regularly. That stays with you. You don’t trust people. You don’t want to be around anyone. I ran away from home when I was 17 years old. By 20, I had pulled a three-year prison sentence,” he said. “I’ve spent 27 years of my life in prison. The last round was for six years right before COVID-19 hit. One year of that time was in solitary confinement. I can’t be closed in. I’d rather be outside.”

Darrel Reinford, Christian Churches United executive director, said by phone “The scale of coordination necessary to help the homeless needs to be better understood by the public.” Every combination of circumstances can be encountered.

 For example, he said, ”Some of our people have valid housing vouchers but cannot use them because we cannot locate suitable housing. That’s why it’s important we do not work in a vacuum.” 

To that end, Reinford noted that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently released information on additional funding to assist with housing placements. 

“We’re on it,” he said.

Meanwhile, back at the camp Mobley explains to an unhoused person how the housing application process works, encouraging them to stick with it. Two bicyclists pass by the portion of trail narrowed by her parked van.

“Sorry for any inconvenience. We can move the van,” she offered but the cyclists were gone.

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Originally published at,by Frank Pizzoli

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