By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
The men’s only homeless shelter celebrates its fifth anniversary this week, said founder and executive director Sherry Swetz. Relying solely on donations, the shelter has outgrown its current location on Bank Place in downtown Sharon, and directors are actively looking for a larger spot, she said, but one that is still in Sharon.
The current shelter can house up to nine men a night, with eight beds and one overflow cot, Swetz said, but she realizes from the calls and requests she gets that she could easily help 12 to 16 men a day and would like to be able to serve women and children as well.
Several of the men currently living at the shelter agreed it doesn’t take much to be pushed into homelessness. James, a 51-year-old man, who has a speech impediment because of a stroke he had, said a divorce and the ensuing child and spousal support payments bankrupted him.
He said he pays more than $1,000 a month in support and had a good-paying job at a local industry when he was felled by health problems. He lost his job, and couldn’t afford a place to live. After bouncing around staying with friends, he finally came to the shelter to take advantage of the programs that can help him get work and get back on his feet, he said.
Another man, Ed, who has been at the shelter for nearly eight months and now works there as a residence assistant on midnights, said a divorce was the catalyst that started a cascade of events that left him estranged from his family and with nowhere to live.
“I had a beautiful home with a big swimming pool, and I had a good job for 23 years in a local mill. I got my daughter married off and well, but between the $1,200 a month I pay in support, I had trouble living anywhere. I stayed at a hotel, but that got pretty expensive, pretty fast. I’d have maybe $50 a month left. I couldn’t get gas in my car, and I couldn’t keep my car. Then I couldn’t get to work. Then I lost my job. Now my kid won’t have anything to do with me, nor will the rest of my family,” he said.
“You think if you have relatives that you have a safety net. Try using that net and see what you have,” he said.
Swetz’s mission of providing a clean, safe environment for the homeless was a long time in coming, she said, but one that a leap of faith and what she thinks was divine intervention allowed to happen.
“When I was 19, I had a vision that someone knocked at my door and he needed shelter and something to eat. Then another knock and it was a woman and her child. And I knew that was my calling,” she said.
But she put that calling off for more than 30 years, while she taught radiology at Gannon University in Erie. At age 50, she lost her job. “And I thought, what am I going to do now? Maybe now is the time for this purpose,” she said.
Her husband, John, also 58, had a good job locally as a millwright. The couple rented the former Mancuso Pest Control building and paid the first month’s rent, she said, which was $1,000.
“And then the very next week, he lost his job. So here we are, with this project starting, and no money coming in. We went from two incomes to none. But we went to the community, and the support has been tremendous. The hospital donated chairs, companies gave us filing cabinets and computers and telephones. A church gave us the dining table. We have been blessed,” she said.
Donors frequently bring food to the shelter, and Swetz said she’s always in need of staples such as cereal, laundry and bus tokens.
She said she had no idea how to set up the operation she has now, but learned most of it from volunteers from the New Castle City Rescue Mission who guided her.
One of the key rules for staying at the shelter is that the men cannot be drinking or using drugs. Drug screens are given before the men can come in, and if they fail, they cannot stay. And the reason, she said, is because her mission is to provide a “clean and safe environment” and men that are drunk or high can lead to problems, she said.
“If we allow one to have narcotics or alcohol, we have to allow all. And that could just get out of control,” she added.
“I want that safety factor so that they have a place where they can work on getting stronger inside and becoming independent,” Swetz said.
Ed said there is a large population of homeless in the valley that have problems with substance abuse but won’t come to Joshua’s Haven for that reason.
“I won’t say where but there is a community that lives in the woods, because of problems like that. One guy has a dog that he won’t leave, so he stays out.”
Swetz volunteered for the first two years Joshua’s Haven was open, but now takes a small salary as its director. She has grown the agency into one that provides a hot meal every day of the year for 12 to 15 people, using food donations from organizations and volunteers.
On weekends, they give bread to anyone who needs it. The bread is donated by Panera Bread and Combine Brothers restaurant, and usually about 50 people show up on Saturday and Sunday. The group plants a community garden in Masury and offers the produce to those who need food.
Those who stay at the shelter overnight have to leave by 8 a.m., she said. They are encouraged to look for work, and to find the assistance they need to turn themselves around. One of the men, a 21-year-old named Joel, said since coming there he has enrolled in a trade school and worked at the shelter as an assistant at night.
Another man, Scott, said just a year ago, he was working 60-plus hours a week, making deliveries to Pittsburgh. A mold problem in the family’s home led his wife and daughter to leave for health reasons and that separation eventually led to a divorce. He moved to Sharon to be closer to his daughter but he didn’t have the money for the move.
“So I took out a big loan to make the move and pay security deposits. Then my truck needed inspected and it cost me $1,500 and I put that on a credit card. Now all the money I have is gone and I have these big bills. The very next week I was let go. Then my truck got repossessed and soon I was evicted because I couldn’t pay the rent. I couldn’t find another job and I was turned down for unemployment,” he said.
“And pretty soon I used up all my phone calls I could make, asking friends for help,” Scott added.
Ed agreed with Scott that relying on unemployment isn’t easy. “Getting assistance is harder than it used to be. I worked in that mill for 23 years. I paid into that system and I was a good worker. I’m sorry the last couple years weren’t quite up to the par they wanted, but I was a good worker. And I couldn’t get it because I was fired for missing work,” he said.
He also said gaining independence is difficult with the stigma of homelessness attached. “Most of us in this position, our credit is shot. Try getting an apartment with bad credit. Now you need extra security deposits and stuff,” he said.
Swetz said she feels she’s met her initial mission but she wants to continue growing, because she sees the need. None of the men at the shelter said they ever imagined a scenario where they would be living in a homeless shelter, but Swetz said, “It could always be worse. They could be out there, when it’s below zero. In here, they are safe and standing where they can rise up again,” she said.
And the good will was also extended to one special golden retriever, Ivy, who was homeless for four years. Now she helps man the front office and lifts the spirits of those coming in.
“She can be the face of homelessness too. It can be anyone,” Swetz said.
To volunteer at Joshua’s Haven or make a donation, call 724-983-0304.