Ben* became homeless when his Carlisle landlord kicked the family out of their rental home. As a result, the family of seven—Ben, his wife and their five children—lived out of their minivan for six months.
“It’s hard to find a rental home with more than two bedrooms,” he said.
But they moved into another rental, and, within two months, the same thing happened. Once again, they were homeless for a period of six months.
It might surprise you to learn that, through it all, Ben worked full-time as a truck driver.
Like many of the area’s homeless, he knew where his family could get a good night’s sleep—inside their vehicle, parked at an area truck stop. Open 24/7, truck stops also offer restrooms, showers and laundry facilities.
And it was at Carlisle’s Flying J Truckstop that Ben connected with a group of community volunteers from New Kingstown’s St. Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church simply called “The Flying J Ministry.”
Twice a month, church members, including Pastor Matthew Best, help the homeless with the most basic of human needs. There’s a welcoming time for conversation. The volunteers pay for laundry ($2.50 per washer or dryer load) and meals at the attached Denny’s.
While dinner orders are placed, Best reads from the Bible then offers his thoughts and communion. Everyone around the table—23 on the night I visited—is asked to share something for which they are thankful, followed by a prayer. Conversation, including lots of laughter, happens during dinner.
Then church members assess and help the homeless apply for services they may need, aided by representatives from Community Cares or Sadler Health Center. The night concludes with hot showers (normally $12 each). Many return to their temporary homes—their vehicles— overnight.
“Usually people living in their cars have not been homeless for the long-term, and their car is the one thing they have left,” said Christina Kapp, coordinated entry system manager for the Cumberland County Housing and Redevelopment Authorities. “It has doors that lock, a heater, and people feel safe in their car.”
Kapp said that the Flying J Ministry is a one-of-a-kind program.
“They’re meeting people where they are, connecting with people who might not even know there’s a system to navigate much less how to navigate it, providing stop-gap assistance and helping with immediate physical needs,” she said. “And they keep a pulse on where they are emotionally in other ways.”
Her figures on Cumberland County’s homeless (see infographic) are beginning to incorporate some of the homeless population living out of their cars and entering the “system,” she said, thanks to bonds established by the Flying J Ministry.
What are the factors causing homelessness in Cumberland County?
“Rents in Cumberland County continue to skyrocket, and the amount of affordable housing has not grown proportionally with the population—neither have wages,” Kapp said. “So people are working in lower-wage jobs because that’s where the jobs are.”
Most of the “regulars” who show up on St. Stephen’s Flying J Ministry nights are employed, said Pastor Best.
“The challenge they face is usually one thing—a health incident for example—and if you don’t work, you can’t get paid, and it spirals. You have to make decisions about what bills you’re going to pay,” he said. “Being homeless is really about being out of control.”
Speaking of bills, the typical Denny’s dinner bill that they cover ranges from $175 to $300. Twice, an anonymous diner picked up the tab. Otherwise, the church’s program is funded by two grants, plus the church collects and distributes personal care products and sleeping bags.
The group, perhaps surprisingly, has no formal training.
“Jesus had 12 guys, and every single one, he called out and said, ‘Come, follow me,’ and there was no training, no plan, just a call,” Best said. “They were crazy enough to follow, and it changed their lives, and look at the impact it had on their lives and the world.”
Rebeacca*, 19, lives with her dad, but attends Flying J Ministry to visit with four homeless family members, including her grandparents. She said that the best thing about the program is, “you can say you need prayer, and no one is going to judge you here.”
Her grandparents fled their Harrisburg home about two years ago due to “safety issues,” she said. They moved into a rental but discovered it was previously condemned by the city, which left them homeless.
“It’s sad to see—they deserve a home,” Rebeacca said. “It hurts, especially during the holidays because I wish my nana had a place to cook.”
Leslie Blumenaurer arranges her work schedule as a Denny’s server to coincide with Flying J Ministry nights. Why does she request their tables, strung together in the back of the restaurant?
“They all make me feel like family,” she said. “I like to go the extra mile for them. I think everybody deserves respect, and I’ve been homeless myself.”
Crystal Houser is a member of St. Stephen’s who helped found the ministry with Pastor Best about two years ago. A state worker by day, she’s met and helped dozens of the homeless during Flying J Ministry nights. She recalls a homeless family with two young boys.
“The older brother was telling the younger brother how to use the showers,” Houser said. “It broke my heart because no child should have to take a shower at a truck stop.”
The ministry and people are on her mind, “24/7,” she said.
“We’re giving them a burger at Denny’s, but that’s not really what’s feeding them,” she said. “We’re building community.”
*Last names withheld for privacy.
St. Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church is located at 30 W. Main St., New Kingstown. For more information, visit www.ststephenlc.org/home.