2016-12-01 / Up Close

Happy Homemaker

Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

Ginny PoormanGinny PoormanStormstown resident Ginny Poorman was visiting friends in Pittsburgh one weekend several years ago when she stopped to say hello to a homeless man. Her friends immediately admonished her.

“They said, ‘We walk by that man every day.’ And I said ‘And you’ve never talked to him?’” says Poorman, 37. She ended up ditching her pals and spending time with the stranger, who took her to meet his friends and showed her where they sleep, under a bridge in the city.
Poorman was moved to help.

“I decided State College was such a wealthy community, and we didn’t really have a homeless problem,” she says. So she began collecting donations here and filling backpacks with needed items, then driving them to Pittsburgh to distribute among her new down-on-their-luck acquaintances. But it wasn’t long before she realized she’d only been half right about her assessment of State College — it is a wealthy community, but it also has a homeless problem.

“I started working with two guys who were straight homeless here,” she says. “I went with them to the Out of the Cold program one night, and there were 13 people there that night. People were saying they were eating at 6 in the morning and not again until 9 o’clock at night, and that there wasn’t a lot of places to get out of the weather during the day.”

So in February 2014, Poorman redirected her efforts, starting the nonprofit Hearts for Homeless, which supports the homeless in Centre County with a daytime drop-in shelter, free daily lunch, transitional housing and job preparedness services.

“We pretty much serve anyone who needs help,” she says. “We’ve had college students who aren’t homeless but can’t afford food, so they come here and have lunch.”

Poorman, the nonprofit’s executive director, had no experience running a homeless shelter or even a nonprofit organization, but she did understand how tough it can be to make ends meet and stay afloat. Having been on her own since she was 17, Poorman attended Penn State but left college early when she was offered a management position at the restaurant where she worked. The financial stability was too good to pass up, and for the next 15 years she worked in restaurant management.

A single mom to a 9-year-old daughter, Poorman now dedicates all her time to Hearts for Homeless, opting not to draw a salary so that all donations can benefit those she serves.

“I did draw a small salary for a little while but A) it wasn’t a very big salary at all and B) the money could be used in a lot of other places,” she says. “So we run an eBay store and we donate plasma and do stuff like that on the side. I’m pretty minimalistic so I don’t need a lot.”

What she does need is more — and regular — monetary donations to help keep the services flowing.
“People often think, ‘I can’t donate $1,000, so it’s not worth it,’ but honestly consistent monthly donors who give $20, $30, people who are just committed to helping every month in small amounts would help tremendously,” she says.  

The daytime drop-in center, located below Dunkin’ Donuts on the corner of West College Avenue and South Fraser Street, gives clients a place to get out of the weather during the day, grab snacks, lunch and basic necessities, and provides a long-term place to keep their belongings. Volunteers help clients fill out job applications and create résumés, and they are outfitted with business attire for job interviews as well.

The organization also rents seven apartments of varying sizes to meet its clients’ transitional housing needs. Most pay at least partial rent, a figure based on their salary and/or any government assistance they receive, and Hearts for Homeless covers the rest. Poorman also works with 12 local restaurants that donate food, so every Monday through Thursday her clients are given lunch from a local restaurant. In addition, a sizable weekly donation of fresh produce from Trader Joe’s helps to stock the kitchens of the Hearts for Homeless apartments.  

Right now there are 20 clients in Hearts for Homeless transitional housing, with another 20 who need it, Poorman says. Many of them are relying on Out of the Cold: Centre County, but the demand has grown beyond the churches’ nightly capacity, and Poorman is looking to purchase a large home in Bellefonte that could give her the space they desperately need.

“The stress is overwhelming sometimes, but it’s good,” Poorman says. “For us, the worst thing is when someone comes in and says, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you guys were here, I’ve been homeless for three weeks.’ That’s really hard to hear.”

And Poorman notes a growing demographic in the local homeless population — one most people wouldn’t think need this kind of help.   

“One-third of our homeless population is college students. And what a tremendous thing it is for them to want to go to college, to want to better their situation,” she says. “I feel like we all should be doing everything we can to support them in that.”

Poorman has a meeting set up this month with Penn State’s assistant vice president of Student Affairs to talk about possible solutions and how they can work together to make sure these young adults are given every chance to succeed.

“At least 10 have made it a semester or two and said, ‘I’m going home.’ And that’s really hard because for a lot of them there’s drug dealing in their family or abuse, and they’re just like, ‘I’m just gonna go back,’” she says. “It’s so disheartening to know they almost made it, and had they had a little bit of extra support, would they have finished? It’s frustrating.”

But Poorman says there are plenty of success stories in this line of work, and every day brings more.

“It’s different every day, it’s different every week. And every year we’re seeing tremendous amounts of people get on their feet,” she says. “I feel like maybe we don’t do such a good job of explaining to people that you’re not supporting the same people. In 2014, we helped 150 people not be homeless and we haven’t seen 90 percent of them back. So people are using these programs and getting out of homelessness and helping themselves up.” •SCM

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