My experience serving at Sixth Street Shelter during a leave of absence this fall
By Alisha Gangadharan ’21
In mid-October, I was at the office when I got a call from one of our residents, Clara. I picked up the phone and she said, “Hi, Alisha, it’s Clara.” Her tone was unexpectedly upbeat.
“Finally,” she said, “we did it.” Her voice broke for a moment, and she followed up with, “Thank you so much, Alisha. I was finally approved for the listing you found for me.”
I immediately got teary-eyed as I could hear Clara’s relief and gratitude through the phone. I responded, “I am so happy for you. You did it. I was just here to help.”
This past semester I took a leave of absence to work at Sixth Street Shelter in Allentown as family resource coordinator. This position was created to assist families in finding sustainable employment and affordable housing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, funded through the CARES Act and granted through the city of Allentown. When I started in August, the unemployment rate in the Lehigh Valley was around 11%, up from the national average of about 8.5%. When I accepted the position, I was definitely aware of the fact that I was being tasked with a large undertaking—attempting to help bring stability to the lives of those who were hit the hardest, with not nearly enough financial support and resources.
I had been working very closely with Clara since I began my job in August, searching for housing for her and her three children. Despite being in the shelter since early 2020, she was always dedicated, and I never doubted her incredible motivation. She was working a full-time job throughout the night so she could assist her kids with online school during the day. She was searching for listings daily, applying for any and all local apartments in the city, and constantly visiting places, attempting to persuade landlords to rent to her family. She certainly had enough money in savings but still was being rejected on all her housing applications.
This was the hardest part about working at the shelter. We saw families take all the steps they needed to get themselves out of homelessness but not being able to see the results because of an acute lack of stable affordable housing options, and a subsequent reliance on severely underfunded and overburdened nonprofit organizations to provide short-term solutions for longer-term problems.
However, I am also aware of how important the generosity of individuals, local organizations, and nonprofits is in bringing much-needed support and relief to families. I’m in awe of the unrelenting work everyone in our small office put in to ensure none of our families were neglected and that we were doing everything we could to keep spirits up (while maintaining the public health and safety of each person who enters our doors—in the midst of a pandemic, no less).
Some other fun things I did at work: playing with babies who were blissfully unaware of the current state of the world, acting as tech support for the 30-plus kids attempting to do daily online school from the shelter, putting together (COVID-friendly) events and activities for the families during the holidays, and disinfecting any and all surfaces around the office with unbelievable frequency.
It was incredible to work with the families at the shelter and all my coworkers. At the same time though, I was frustrated enough with the answer “That’s just the way it is” to become empowered to be part of the process to change that “way”—making it more accessible for marginalized populations to just obtain basic human needs and then ultimately live a stable and content life. This work will certainly inform my career path after graduation in the spring, as I know I want to remain involved with local organizations that have a well-intentioned and tangible impact on the communities they serve. Now, I’m not saying 2020 was a fun time for anyone, but I am certainly humbled and grateful that it brought me to Sixth Street Shelter.
Sixth Street Shelter is a long-standing program of Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley. Since 1984, the shelter has been providing temporary housing for Lehigh Valley homeless families with children. Today Sixth Street Shelter offers 25 individual family apartments. Its philosophy, in keeping with the broader mission of CACLV, encourages those it serves to accept responsibility for themselves.