'We gave him hope': Shelter staff outlines homelessness concerns in Somerset County


United Way of the Laurel Highlands


There are many reasons people become homeless. 

Lisa Wengerd, who runs Next Step Center, Somerset County's homeless shelter, said addiction and a lack of affordable housing options are among the top. 

"We need more options for affordable housing," Wengerd said. She has been the executive director of the center, located along Stoystown Road in Somerset, since 2013. "It's difficult for peo

ple on a fixed income." 

The center is one of the United Way of the Laurel Highlands Partner Agencies. The United Way is providing the center $10,000 to help the homeless in the coming year as part of a continued partnership. 

The problem is significant. In 2021, programs funded by the United Way in Cambria and Somerset counties helped nearly 1,000 people avoid homelessness. 

Wengerd said the Stoystown Road location averages about five or six people a month, who stay for up to 30 days. The goal is to connect them with opportunities, services and agencies that can get them back on their feet and into longer-term housing. In emergencies, the center could house about 15 people. 

Justin Kerrigan has been the program coordinator at the center since 2015. His position has brought stability to the house, especially in the evenings. 

Kerrigan lives on-site. He provides classes, including basic life skills and gardening, and also makes sure order is maintained. The staff completes basic background checks on people who arrive at the shelter. 

For the process to work, he said people must accept guidance and help. When they do, there's a good chance they can leave the shelter in a better condition than when they entered. 

"It feels good to know you make a difference in someone else's life," Kerrigan said. "It gives our work purpose." 

The operation has four properties, three in Somerset and one in Rockwood. The newest effort along Main Street in Somerset is intended to help fill the void of affordable housing. 

During the pandemic, Next Step Center bought the Law & Finance Building, a large brick property along the town's main drag. The building has 16 apartments, some of which are being renovated. 

Wengerd said a 400-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment rents for $400 a month, including most utilities. It's intended for low- to moderate-income people -- the type of housing she said is needed. 

The need is county wide. Wengerd said the center serves people from Addison to Windber. 

The building along Main Street is a start, though Wengerd and Kerrigan said more work is needed. They think part of the solution is increased cooperation between community and social service organizations that share the same clients. 

Kerrigan also noted that he would like more landlords to accept third-party payments for rent. Sometimes the center will pay rent for a person trying to get back on their feet, but some landlords are hesitant to rent to them. 

There are people who show up at the shelter with baggage, including addiction. 

"That's what you get to work on first," Wengerd said. 

A success story includes a person who Kerrigan said was "a mess" upon arriving. While at the center, the man took advantage of opportunities there. Now that person has his own place. 

"We gave him hope," Wengerd said.