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Your View from Ce-Ce Gerlach: I was once homeless. Here’s why Allentown needs a homeless bill of rights

Allentown's former tent city encampment, used by homeless residents of the city, is seen in this 2020 file photo. City Council on June 26 voted to not adopt an “unsheltered bill of rights” resolution. Kayla Dwyer/첥Ƶ
Kayla Dwyer/첥Ƶ
Allentown’s former tent city encampment, used by homeless residents of the city, is seen in this 2020 file photo. City Council on June 26 voted to not adopt an “unsheltered bill of rights” resolution. Kayla Dwyer/첥Ƶ
Ce-Ce Gerlach
PUBLISHED:

Everything was gone. My laptop, most of my clothes and most importantly my money for rent. To make matters worse, I needed to spend the only money I had left in the bank on a new car tire.  I had just graduated from college and was teaching at the Caring Place after-school program in Allentown. Just like that, everything I worked for, everything I accomplished, did not matter.

I was homeless. I slept in my car for six months.

I got a membership at LA Fitness so that I would have a place to shower and maintain hygiene. Once, I fell asleep in the locker room and woke up to a woman tapping on my shoulder. I was told that I could not sleep there so I ran to my car, where I cried out of humiliation.

On extra cold nights, I would go to the laundromat at Ninth and Linden to warm up until an attendant would realize that I did not have any laundry and tell me to leave. I tried resting on the urine-covered bathroom floors but eventually someone would tell me to go. One attendant threatened to call the police.

I tried to take advantage of the extended holiday hours at Lehigh Valley Mall and catch a moment of rest. My plan was to look like an exhausted shopper, so I gathered empty bags from Boscov’s, Macy’s and Foot Locker, filled them with my clothes and sat on a bench near JCPenney. The “shop til you drop” image didn’t work. Once again, I woke up to a tapping on my shoulder and a security guard peering over me.

I lost my humanity when I was unhoused. I lost my sense of self. After being treated like trash — being told to leave or move along — I started to feel like trash. Constantly being told that you don’t belong and being in survival mode alters one’s decision making. Actions that typically would be out of the question suddenly become necessary.

I almost made a decision that would have changed my life forever. It was a blistering cold evening — mind-numbingly freezing. A man I met at the library (I didn’t even know his name) invited me to stay the night in his apartment. I drove him home and told him that I would be up shortly as he got out of my car. Just as I was taking the key out of the ignition and about to open the car door, I got a phone call from Ms. Vikki.

Ms. Vikki was a cook at the Caring Place. She invited me over for dinner. I was starving and Ms. Vikki was an excellent cook so I accepted the invitation. Ms. Vikki must have sensed that something was going on with me because when I arrived she told me to bring up my stuff and that I would be staying with her. At the time I did not know how much Ms. Vikki was going through. She was struggling with recovery, and was recently homeless herself. Because her apartment was subsidized, she was putting her own housing security at risk to help me.

I stayed with Ms. Vikki for just over a month, which allowed me to regain focus of who I was and regain my humanity. I had a place to eat, a place to shower, a place to just chill after work. Nobody could tell me to “move along.” Nobody could call the police on me for just existing in a space.

When I needed help, it wasn’t an institution, a politician or a church to come to my rescue — it was a formerly homeless person struggling with recovery. Ms. Vikki was the type of person who some feel is disposable or undesirable to live in Allentown, but she saved my life.

I wasn’t on Allentown City Council when Ms. Vikki was unhoused or when authorities told her to “keep it moving.” I didn’t have any power then, but I do now.

When I was homeless, all I wanted was for someone to see me — to acknowledge my humanity. With the support of Council member Natalie Santos, I tried to let everyone experiencing homelessness or on the verge of it know that we as a City Council see them.

Santos and I introduced the Unsheltered Declaration of Rights, which would have enshrined everyone’s right to vote, to have privacy, to access public areas, to have an education and to obtain employment regardless of housing status. Everyone on Allentown City Council except Santos and I said “no.”

The declaration was an opportunity for us to state that being homeless is not a crime. We failed to do so. Even worse is the fact that the all-Democratic Allentown City Council’s vote was in line with the ultra right-wing conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently ruled in favor of the criminalization of homelessness in the Grants Pass v. Johnson decision.

Passing the declaration of rights was a chance for us to make clear that nobody is disposable and that everyone belongs. City Council had the opportunity to declare that Ms. Vikki, the 400-plus homeless students, the thousands of housing unsecure in Allentown and myself matter. It hurts my heart that once again we were told that we don’t belong.

Ce-Ce Gerlach is a member of Allentown City Council.

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