Feature Story Community Shelter Services

When people think of those who are experiencing homelessness, they don’t often realize just how many people are impacted by and experiencing it.

“We see everything from babies born in the shelter to 84-year-old veterans,” Diane Lazette, president of Community Shelter Services (CSS) said.

CSS was established in 1973 in Erie, Pennsylvania as a 12-bed emergency shelter. It was cofounded by Mother Mary Beth Kennedy and Rev. Charles Kennedy Sr., both of whom were well known in the Erie community for their dedication to those less fortunate and their legacy of love.

Today, CSS has grown to operate not only their main location, best known as the old Columbus School, which can house up to 90 people on any given night, but also The Lodge on Sass, which can house 50 single occupants.

“We are the largest shelter in Erie, serving the poorest zip code in the United States,” Lazette said.

Together with the wonderful Erie community, CSS is able to ensure the basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and most importantly, security, are being met for all of Erie’s homeless population.

CSS starts with the immediate needs, giving people a safe haven when their emotions are high. Residents are given four warm meals a day and CSS never stops, so there is always something available. It is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with around the clock security. In addition to providing basic shelter services to those in need, you can also often find CSS down at the local parks and tent encampments passing out food, water, blankets and tarps.

CSS even helps people find jobs and permanent housing. And for Lazette, that makes it all worthwhile.

“When I see a family with children or an individual walking out our front door with everything that they own, rather than walking in, and knowing that they’re going to their next phase of their life – this is the greatest moment of all.” When it comes to challenges, CSS has no shortage. Rising costs of expenses had been one of the biggest hurdles, with Lazette seeing a 37 percent increase in food bills and a huge increase in utility bills in just the last year alone.

“If you could ever help in any way – nothing is too small. Even if it’s paper plates or paper cups, we go through so many serving so many people four meals a day. You might not think it’s much, but you’d be surprised how appreciated something so small would be,” Lazette said.

When looking to the future, Lazette speaks of their partnership with the Kiwanis Club in order to build a village of tiny homes to get kids and their families off the street. Each home will be able to house a family of four and will be close to the bus route so kids can get to school.

They also recently added new washers and dryers that are free of charge, rather than coin operated, to ensure its residents practice good hygiene and kids have clean clothes for school.

Lazette would like to remind the community that CSS wants them to be as involved as possible and encourages people to reach out to see how they can partner together as a community. CSS is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, where everyone is encouraged to come and celebrate with them to support their efforts to save lives and save people.

The event, called Let the Good Times Roll, will be a Vegas-style evening at the beautiful Mound Grove Golf Course in Waterford, Pennsylvania on Friday, April 28th. It will feature table games with professional dealers, a red carpet walk, prizes, a prime rib dinner and much more.

“(Our shelter) being full every single night is the proven fact that affordable housing is needed and a community coming together can provide that,” she said.

For more information on this great organization and what you can do to help, visit: www.communityshelter.org. 

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