Sitting on a leather couch while watching TV, wearing a slim-fitting long sleeve T-shirt, nice jeans and hair neatly pulled back, Donna Simpson does not look how one would imagine a homeless person to look.
And the emergency shelter where she's staying - one of the three shelter services in Blair County set up through Family Services Incorporated - doesn't look how she'd imagined it, either.
"When you hear homeless shelter, you think of this big gymnasium with cots where you have to put your stuff underneath a pillow," said Simpson, 47, originally of Duncansville.
Mirror photos by Gary M. Baranec
After losing her job as a steelworker in Pittsburgh, Donna Simpson moved back to the area and is living in Family Services’ homeless shelter on Eighth Avenue, Altoona. The shelter is full.
But this shelter on Eighth Avenue has eight bedrooms and four bathrooms, bunk beds and bright colors - a welcoming place to live for people like Simpson who never imagined they'd be living here.
As an Army veteran who later worked for eight years in Pittsburgh in the steel industry before being let go, Simpson is part of the growing, yet almost invisible population of the homeless in Blair County.
After going through what she collected from unemployment, then moving back to the area to stay with her niece in Duncansville until there just wasn't enough room for her, Simpson has been at the Family Services emergency shelter since June 10.
"I don't know where I'd be without this place, I really don't," she said. "I would live here forever if they would let me."
That attitude of both wanting and needing to stay at the shelter past the designated 30-day time frame is just one of the many reasons Family Services is turning away more than 500 people a month from the emergency shelter, said development director Cheryl Gonsman.
"Not only is there more homelessness, but we're being asked to work with more for less," she said. "We're helping more people. We're helping them longer because the other thing that's happening is that there is a shortage of affordable housing. ... That's something that I've seen a huge change in."
Another change has been the amount of state and federal funding that resources like Family Services are receiving. Gonsman said many of the resources they offer have been dropped or have taken a huge budget cut, including their community outreach program and counseling services.
"All of our programs are in the negative right now, and we're looking for other ways to supplement that," she said. "It's just a huge indicator that, as a nonprofit, you can no longer sustain yourself on the government funding."
Bedford County's last homeless shelter - a domestic violence shelter run through Your Safe Haven Inc. - closed its doors in June after grants given to them through both the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Pennsylvania Coalition against Domestic Violence were changed or cut, said Jeannee Mallow, the group's executive director.
"It was almost impossible to find volunteers to cover those shifts," Mallow said after the shelter's staff was cut from six people to two. "We finally made the decision to shut down."
The Bedford County shelter, which used to assist 130 adults and children a year, now refers people in need of long-term assistance to Blair or Cambria counties. Gonsman said there were once children staying at the Domestic Abuse Shelter in Altoona who were bused to school each day by the Bedford School District.
Another situation where counties are lending a hand to one another is in emergency food service.
Michelle McGowan, public relations director for the American Rescue Workers Inc. food bank in Hollidaysburg, which supplies state and federal food service to Hollidaysburg, Duncansville, Martinsburg, Roaring Spring, East Freedom and Newry, said they will assist the Altoona food bank when it's needed and vice versa. That became necessary at the beginning of the year when the state funding the Hollidaysburg food bank was awarded took so long to go through, they had to pull resources from other areas until the money was received.
"That made it very, very rough," McGowan said. "Thank God for the churches and the community people."
Though the shelves at the food pantry are regularly "quite bare," it's aid from the community that allows them to assist 10 to 14 families a day, McGowan said. However, there is still a need for more resources in the area, she added.
"The resources aren't growing in response to the need for them," McGowan said. "[We've gotten] five new families this week. In the beginning of the year, we were lucky if we got one new family. ... These are people who have never been in this situation before. They're coming in, and they're worried and embarrassed about it."
Altoona City Police Lt. Jeffrey Pratt said there are only a handful of visibly homeless people that the city police deal with on a regular basis. However, there is also a transient population of the homeless who will bounce from location to location, or hide away sleeping in parks or behind buildings instead of sleeping on the streets, he added.
"We definitely have a homeless problem here," Pratt said. "But they aren't the high-profile people you see pandering around with a sign asking for money at busy intersections. ... What I find dealing with a lot of these folks is that they're good, hardworking people who, for whatever reason, had a financial catastrophe and need some help getting on their feet."
Pratt said patrol officers have also come across people living in their cars or camping out in the woods. A pregnant woman was once found camping with two men not far outside the city limits, he added.
"Here is a woman who should be getting preventative medical care, but is living in these unsanitary conditions," Pratt said.
Gonsman said it amazes her the number of people who don't know that there are homeless services in Blair County, or who aren't aware of the problem simply because it's not as visible as it is in larger cities.
"There are people who live in Blair County that do not believe homelessness is an issue because these people aren't sleeping underneath the bridges," she said. "I think part of that is that pride is a big thing here. People who are homeless don't want people to know that they're homeless. They're doing everything they can not to be seen or visible."
But from private individuals to church groups and large corporations, Gonsman said the local community is what gives these people and this problem a glimmer of hope.
"That's one thing I will say, that living here and working here in Blair County is probably one of the best things in the world," she said. "Our county is a county that does care. When we need something and we ask for it, the community is the first. They don't even ask, they just give. So I think that's the other thing you see happening, you do see that next door neighbor stepping in to help. You don't see that in the other cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but you really see it here. People will pitch in as a community to help. It's neat. It's a neat thing to have happening here in Blair County."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.