CENTER VALLEY, Pa. — No one ever expects to be homeless. But there is help for families who find themselves in this difficult situation.
Penn State alumna Kristine Blasco, who attend the Lehigh Valley campus, has been with the Sixth Street Shelter in Allentown, Pennsylvania, for almost a decade — five years as director. In that time, she and her staff have helped hundreds of families. Many are now living and working independently. Others take longer to get on their feet. Blasco and her staff work with the families every step of the way, guiding them toward self-sufficiency. Although no one ever expects to be experiencing homelessness, Blasco points out it can literally happen to anyone.
Blasco majored in psychology at Penn State Lehigh Valley and was a student when she first visited the Sixth Street Shelter. “I took a class in sociology with Dr. [Jennifer] Parker, and we took tours of two places — Lehigh County Prison, and the Sixth Street Shelter. I grew up in the country — I didn’t know there were shelters. I loved the shelter. I loved the kids. I asked for my internship to be at the shelter. And I never left,” she explained. She was offered a part-time job at the shelter prior to graduation in 2012; in fall 2013, she was hired as a full-time caseworker.
As director, Blasco wears many hats. She oversees the day-to-day operations of the shelter, including supervising nine staff members and a group of volunteers. She handles all maintenance and finds the professionals to fix building issues. Most importantly, she is an advocate for the shelter and the families they serve. “I go out and seek donors, I work with churches, businesses and other organizations. I speak about homelessness and how people can help,” she explained. “I have very little downtime — there is always something to do. I might go outside and start weeding or watering the garden. What happens at the shelter reflects me and reflects the community, so I am always doing something.” Blasco says the biggest challenge of her job is “It changes at the drop of a hat. We’ve been through so many things, from a death of a participant to a child hitting the sprinkler system with a hanger and the remediation that entails. We have to be able to adapt quickly in an emergency. We have to keep it together. Things literally come out of nowhere.”
Families are referred to the shelter. “They receive a referral from Connect to Home of the Lehigh Valley’s 211 hotline (a statewide phone number for various human services) and are placed on a waiting list. Often families are living in unsafe environments and we bring them in for services,” Blasco explained. “You must have children, under age 18 living with you.”
Once in the shelter, the family completes an initial intake with a case worker and continues working with them throughout their time in the shelter. “The family has to keep going. They have to find resources to pay for rent. You have to be actively looking for a job. Our goal is for the family to be self-sufficient,” Blasco explained. Employed parents save 50% of their paycheck while they’re living at the shelter and receive those funds back when they leave to assist with funds for their new home. “Some families just have their clothing when they come in, and no support system or resources,” Blasco said.
Like every other business and organization, Blasco and her staff faced unimagined challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We normally do a two-hour intake when someone comes in. We started doing intakes over the phone. Half the staff was working from home because that’s how Community Action Lehigh Valley (the shelter’s parent organization) was running things. I could not work from home — I had to be here. A caseworker had to be here. There are things about our program we could not change,” she explained. “We were spending three hours a day cleaning. There was no child care — nothing was open. The staff was running around sanitizing and cleaning. I had to come up with my own SOP for quarantining.”
The shelter can house up to 25 families in private apartments at a time. A family typically stays between 60-90 days, although Blasco says families have been staying longer over the past year because they are unable to find permanent housing. Sixth Street Shelter’s accommodations include two apartment units — Turner Street Apartments in Allentown and Ferry Street Apartments in Easton — that provide families with additional transitional housing.
Despite the daily challenges, Blasco says she loves her work as much as she did when she completed her first internship. “I love my job. I love the kids. I love when someone comes back to me with a success story. I had a girl who emailed me to say she was getting off medical assistance and her Section 8 voucher. I love when someone comes back and tells me how good they’re doing.” She says her job does not end at 5 p.m.—it is literally a 24/7 commitment: “When there is a leak or the fire alarm goes off at 2 a.m., I wake up, drive to the shelter, and take care of it.” She is the mother of two children — her daughter is grown and working in human resources, her son is in his third year of college — but there is little work/life balance in the human services world. “I was at my son’s high school graduation and on the phone with a staff member calling off,” she explained. She says she loves to garden and that is how she decompresses.
Blasco is grateful for the skills and experiences she acquired at Penn State Lehigh Valley. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my psych degree,” she recalled. “I was an older student, and I was going back for a second career. Dr. Parker talking about social issues — she talked about things I hadn’t really thought about. I realized how important it was to be part of my community. Income wasn’t a big thing for me — I realized I wanted to help people right away. I just had a great time.” She added, “Penn State Lehigh Valley is such a part of the community. The way they reach out — they sponsor turkey dinners for our shelter residents every year. Pam Fleck in the Student Affairs office works with the students to put the dinners together, Dr. Parker and her class have also adopted apartments and given them a complete overhaul for a family moving in.”
For more information on the Sixth Street Shelter, visit sixthstreetshelter.org.