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Catholic Charities takes the lead to provide shelter for homeless population

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- In less than a month, the only homeless shelter in Cambria County will close its doors for good. The Salvation Army in Johnstown is not handicapped accessible and because of that it's faced lawsuits. While the building is grandfathered in and allowed to follow old codes, the Salvation Army says it just doesn't have the money to make the upgrades or continue fighting those lawsuits. 

It made the decision to close earlier this year, and since then, a committee of local nonprofit and help organizations have been brainstorming what to do next to help the county's homeless population get back on their feet. 

Now they have a plan, a building and a new organization taking the lead. Catholic Charities said Wednesday it's prepared to take over. 

"About half of their population were transients, we are really focusing on residents that live here in Cambria County," said Jean Johnstone, executive director of Catholic Charities. 

"Catholic Charities is ideally positioned to really help these people in need," said Bill McKinney, executive director of the United Way of the Laurel Highlands."They've been doing it for over 70 to 80 years in our community and now they're taking another big leap forward to really help this population."

A new building to house a permanent shelter has already been acquired by the county. It's currently a rundown home in Kernvill, but when it's fully renovated, officials say it will be the perfect location. 

"The soup kitchen is close to it, a playground is half a block away, the YMCA is across the street and there's a little community garden," said Johnstone. "It couldn't be a better place. "

But as officials have said from the very beginning, the new shelter will not be a handout. It will be equipped with a case manager whose sole purpose will be to help the homeless find a job and a permanent place to stay. 

"Obviously there's a situation or situations that arose that got them homeless," said McKinney. "Now these case managers are really going to come into play and really help this individual and family get back on their feet."

"They will not be able to come and stay for three nights just because they're passing through," said Johnstone. "It will not be run like a hotel, it will be run as an emergency shelter program."

While Catholic Charities says it's prepared to take the reins, other agencies say they're ready to help and hope the community also pitches in.

"Running a shelter is not a money-making venture, so they are going to need a lot of help with their operations moving forward," said McKinney. 

In October, the shelter will only accept homeless people who have lived in Cambria County for at least 90 days. The permanent shelter isn't expected to open until 2014, so in the meantime, Catholic Charities plans to help the homeless by housing them in hotels throughout the county. 

For those who do not qualify for the program, Catholic Charities says it will still do everything it can to assist.

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Edgar Snyder

Washington Times