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Bethlehem News

‘Is anybody home?’: A mission to count the Lehigh Valley's homeless population

Julian Abraham
Bob Rapp and his team counted unhoused people under the train tracks. "These are their homes," Rapp said.

BETHLEHEM, Pa — At 5 a.m. on a cold Thursday, a group of volunteers meets in the basement of a Bethlehem church.

Some wear cowboy hats and hiking boots. And white priest collars.

This day, they'll try to count every homeless person in the Lehigh Valley.

Bob Rapp, the man in charge, hands out paper sheets with a list of locations to check. They include underneath bridges, next to train tracks, and lobbies of Wawa and Mcdonald's.

  • Lehigh Valley Regional Homeless Advisory Board co-ordinated the Lehigh Valley part of annual national Point-In-Time count — a Census of unhoused people
  • The count, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, helps determine funding to fight homelessness
  • Many unhoused people in the Lehigh Valley are wary of others looking to help them

The plan, which is part of the national Point-In-Time count, is to get a sense of how much housing resources are needed in every pocket of the United States.

For two days each year, the Lehigh Valley Regional Homeless Advisory Board coordinates the Point-in-Time Count in the Lehigh Valley.

The count, mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, collects data during a single point in time on people, both sheltered and unsheltered, who are experiencing homelessness.

The information gathered is crucial in helping to determine the need for services and to create strategies to end homelessness in our community.

The Homeless Advisory Board says the housing crisis in the communities it covers has increased due to many factors, including the past two years' health and economic crises.

Last year’s Lehigh Valley homeless reports depicted a 36% increase in people experiencing homelessness in the region since 2020, including 50% more families with children and almost twice as many veterans.

Taking up the task

Homeless shelters often are the ones who have the task of performing the count, and Rapp is the executive director of Bethlehem Emergency Shelter. On weekends, he is a pastor of Christ Church, the church where those about to start the search are gathering.

Julian Abraham
Bob Rapp gives a pep talk before his team hits the streets.

In addition to counting, there also will be a survey and an initiative that is not federally mandated: Rapp’s team will hand out water bottles, warm socks and a bus pass.

“Socks are going to be a hot-ticket item today because it was wet out yesterday,” Rapp said, addressing the group of about a dozen.

Heading out

The teams split up into groups of four, and they get into their cars. Rapp’s team piled into an old pickup truck.

As he turned the key, the radio blares 1980s soft rock. Rapp turns it down to speak, making small talk with the group of guys about the price of eggs these days.

One of the folks in the car is the Rev. John Stratton, a young priest who just moved to the Lehigh Valley from St. Louis. He wears a white-band collar, cowboy boots and a heavy-duty jacket. He has a stubble beard, and a bit of a hippie look you might not expect to see in a priest.

The first stop is a bridge near the SteelStacks entertainment campus in Bethlehem.

Rapp parks the truck and gets out; at this point, the sun hadn’t come up yet.

Stratton turns on a headlamp, and Rapp leads his group down a path that clearly wasn’t designed for people to actually use.

On the right is a makeshift tent — actually a series of tarps and sheets held up on branches and poles.

“Hello? Is anybody home?” Rapp asks, speaking softly toward the tent's “entrance."

Julian Abraham
The team inspects a tent near the train tracks. The man in this tent would not answer.

“No,” a skeptical-sounding male voice says from inside.

“It’s Bob from the shelter,” Rapp says.

The voice from the tent stops responding, and Rapp says, “that’s OK. I’m going to leave some water and a bus pass outside for you.”

The man in the tent says thanks, and the group keeps walking. Stratton checks a box on his clipboard, guessing the man’s age out loud.

"Forty-five," he says.

‘They don’t trust us’

Why did they stop answering?

“They don’t trust us,” Rapp says. “They just, a lot of times, it's because they've been made so many promises, and so many promises have been broken that they don't, they just don't trust folks. That's why it takes a while.”

The next tents on the trail are much more receptive.

It takes a few tries, but as soon as Rapp says, “It’s Bob from the shelter,” two heads poked out the tent window — a man and a woman. The man shakes Rapp’s hand and is happy to step outside and help.

The man, who looked to be about 30, explained that he was starting a new job on Monday, and he was nervous.

“I get really bad social anxiety,” he says. “Even standing here talking to you guys is tough.”

The man will not give his name but says his initials are L.L. He and the woman in the tent are grateful for the gifts from Rapp’s team, especially the bus passes.

“I think most people have goodness in their heart and want to do something good, and yet, we have so many folks who will say, you know, ‘If they just get a job, they'd be OK.’ Or ‘If they just, if they just quit doing drugs, everything would be just fine’. And it's, that sounds real good. But how about we help them do that?”
Bob Rapp, one of the volunteers

In the next tent is a man who looks to be in his 70s. He has a thick, gray beard and is dressed in a well-fitting sweatsuit.

He says good morning to the folks in the next tent and cheerfully speaks with Rapp and the team.

When asked if he has any mental illnesses, the man says yes, but he can't say which ones exactly.

“It depends who you ask,” he says with a hearty laugh.

He explains that he has PTSD and hasn’t slept inside a room in about three years. He says he’s been trying relentlessly to get into a shelter but has been stuck on the waiting list for years.

Stratton adds three more to the count and marks the data on the clipboard.

The group heads back on the path — this time with the sun coming up.

‘How about we help them do that?’

Rapp seems different now. Something is clearly on his mind.

He's speaking slower and having a hard time finishing thoughts.

It then becomes clear he's starting to tear up, which turns out to be in response to the housing situation as a whole.

“I think most people have goodness in their heart and want to do something good,” he says.

“And yet, we have so many folks who will say, you know, ‘If they just get a job, they'd be OK.’ Or ‘If they just, if they just quit doing drugs, everything would be just fine’.

"And it's ... that sounds real good. But how about we help them do that?”

Back in the truck, the '80s rock music still is playing, and he keeps driving.


Rapp says the survey is so important because it’s how funding gets distributed to shelter organizations such as his.

Whether it will actually get distributed properly is another thing.

“I just have to take that in faith that it will,” Rapp says.

There is a vested interest in making the numbers look high. After all, Rapp is the executive director of the organization responsible for the count, which ultimately will gain from how much funding they get.

Asked about that, Rapp says it’s in everybody’s best interests for the numbers to be as accurate as possible — not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because there are only so many slices of pie to go around at a federal level.

It's clear he’s in this business to help unhoused people, not to expand his organization.

A lot of homeless people can be counted when they come into his soup kitchen for lunch. But a lot of people don’t come — for whatever reason, be it distrust, shame or what have you.

Still, he estimates he is pretty much counting every homeless person there is to be counted for the survey. And finding the spots where they may be, he says, is a combination of years of experience, intuition and intel from other members of the community.

At the end of the two-day count, the teams counted 56 unhoused people in Northampton County, and 60 in Lehigh County.

The point-in-time count also determined that every homeless shelter in the Lehigh Valey is holding at least 90 percent of its capacity.

Waterfront property

Not all of the homeless people the group encounters on its census are as wary.

The group's next stop is next to a creek and under another bridge.

A jarring sight at first: a black Halloween prop skeleton wearing a T-shirt and shorts is sitting in a lawn chair, appearing to guard the entrance. His name, the group is told, is George.

Julian Abraham
George the skeleton.

Behind George is a large tent with a well-manicured front porch made of stones — solar-power patio lights and all. Clothes and decorations hang from the ceiling of the overpass, and a blue “secured by ADT” sign is posted — seemingly in jest, even in these dire circumstances.

“Bob!” says a smiley man who appears to be getting his day started at the same time. Rapp shakes his hand, and he invites the group in.

He has lawn chairs set up, a stone fireplace and even a makeshift pantry on a ridge of the concrete overpass, holding cans of beans, soups and pasta.

“I can set the whole thing up in about 45 minutes,” he says. Rapp later says the man has lived there for about three years.

The man says that with his blankets and fireplace outside, the place gets pretty toasty.

“I’m cooked in there!” he says.

Apparently, mosquitoes are quite a problem in the summer.

Julian Abraham
The front lawn of the last tent. Out of shot was George, the skeleton charged with holding down the fort.

When asked the list of survey questions, he's happy to tell Rapp anything he wants to know.

As the group finishes up, the man thanks Rapp, nods his head and speaks.

"Come back anytime,” he says.