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Program fights Southwestern Pennsylvania youth homelessness with host homes

For young adults and youth in Western Pennsylvania, homelessness is becoming an increasing problem.

As of July 10, 2019, Washington County alone has 264 unaccompanied youth, which means any child between the ages of birth and 21 who do not live in the custody of parents or a legal guardian, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

That’s what Valley Youth House (VYH), an organization that provides homes for vulnerable, abused and homeless youth, has been trying to tackle.

VYH implemented ‘Bridge2Home: A Host Home Model Program’ in March that connects youth (ages 16-20) who are experiencing housing instability with volunteer homes in Washington, Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties. Since March two youth have been placed.

Michel Keller, 46, of Greensburg, is the first host home in Westmoreland County. Keller is opening her home with her boyfriend, Michael Murphy, and her three kids.

“We’ve been very blessed and I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” Keller said. “We have the extra room, extra money, why not help out someone in need? We’ve been talking about fostering for a year, and we stumbled upon this program and it just felt right.”

Keller will be meeting with her first youth this Friday.

“She only needed a short term placement, and if she needs to stay with us longer she is more than welcome,” Keller said. “I really wanted to show my kids that we are an open family that helps others in need.”

Those experiencing homelessness or housing instability may be living on the street, shelters, cars or ‘couch surfing’ which is living with extended family or friends, sometimes moving place to place frequently.

Carol Dunlap, host home coordinator, said couch surfing is the most popular option homeless youth utilize.

“Most of the time we see kids who are couch surfing, staying with friends parents,” Dunlap said. “I’ve had a few people come up to me and say ‘My friends kid has been staying with me for two months because he can’t stay with his parents anymore.”

Dunlap expects to have more homeless youth than what has been reported.

“That number is probably double or triple that of what we’re seeing now,” Dunlap said. “Sometimes the system misses them, so we aren’t able to count each individual but we’re working on different measures to make sure we count every single one.”

Westmoreland County has the highest number of unaccompanied youth out of the four counties in the program, with 409 total. There are 200 children who do not live with a parent or legal guardian in kindergarten-fifth, 77 in sixth-eighth and 88 in ninth-12th grade.

Out of the 264 Washington County unaccompanied youth, there are 122 in kindergarten-fifth, 60 in sixth-eighth and 79 in ninth-12th grade.

The program receives referrals for youth facing homeless by several different agencies around the four counties. These agencies try to refer teenagers to Bridge2Home instead of foster care because it can be difficult to get teenagers in.

“We wanted to pilot the program to 16-20 first because it helps a lot of kids who we wanted to keep out of foster care,” Dunlap said. “The program isn’t foster care, and sometimes people assume that, but it’s much different. Eventually we want to expand to 16-24 because we believe young adults need help too.”

Bridge2Home recruits, screens and trains host homes/families. All host homes are subjected to background checks to ensure the safety between the host home providers and the youth. Homes receive a $400 per youth stipend, support and services from VYH staff.

The program is funded through a grant. Each year Bridge2Home has to reapply.

Youth are introduced prior to placement and must voluntarily agree to reside with the host. Dunlap said she’s recently had a youth ‘self select’ a host home.

“I just had a girl who was staying with a friends mom, and they got along great and the mother agreed to become a host home for her,” Dunlap said. “We want to see that because then we already know that the youth and host home get along.”

Once the youth is placed in the host home, a housing stability coach with the VYH assists them in developing and implementing an individual transition plan for short term and long term goals. Plans including housing, education, employment, permanency, physical and mental health and social/recreational goals.

VYH also helps youth by reunification with a parent or guardian if wanted. If the legal guardian doesn’t want to have the child in the home, they can sign a document agreeing for the child to stay in the host home.

Most of the young adults and youth that are facing housing insecurities have dealt with childhood abuse or neglect and some need mental health counseling.

“We’ll do an assessment test to see what is going on with them and from there they can receive counseling so they can cope with the trauma they’ve faced, then they can get where they need to be mentally to improve their future,” Dunlap said.

Bridge2Home is searching for volunteers in Washington, Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties. Eventually, the program hopes to expand to more counties including Allegheny, Greene and Fayette.

If interested in becoming a host home or if experiencing homelessness contact Carol Dunlap at 412-742-7474 or

Gideon Bradshaw/Observer-Reporter 

Nicholas Cumer event

Gideon Bradshaw/Observer-Reporter

Members of the Washington High School Band perform during the memorial service for 2012 graduate Nicholas Cumer, who died in a mass shooting in Ohio.

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Mourners remember life of Nicholas Cumer

Dozens of people gathered Saturday at Washington High School to remember a former student killed during a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, four weeks earlier as details emerged of another in West Texas.

Those gathered in the gymnasium were mourning Nicholas Cumer, a 2012 graduate who was 25 when his life ended Aug. 4.

Standing near a blown-up portrait of Cumer grinning, Pastor Brian Greenleaf of Washington Alliance Church said the image matched his own mental picture of his late congregant.

“He’d come into youth group, and if he was having a bad day, and maybe not smiling, but it was only a matter of moments before those teeth came out, and he just couldn’t hold it in anymore,” Greenleaf said.

Greenleaf was one of a number of speakers who evoked Cumer’s sense of humor and compassion during the memorial ceremony, which drew more than 70 people.

During brief remarks, Vicky Cumer, Nicholas’ mother, thanked the community for its support and the school district for her son’s education.

“We do have one more request – that you just keep us in your prayers, because prayers are what are getting us through, and that’s the main thing that we can ask for,” she said.

NPR reported that Nicholas Cumer was out with colleagues from the Maple Tree Cancer Alliance, where he was interning this summer and had just been offered a full-time job there.

Cumer – who was from East Washington and was a graduate student in the cancer care program at St. Francis University in Loretto, Ohio – was one of nine people killed during the shooting in Dayton’s Oregon district in the early-morning attack.

In a reprise of that attack and similar ones across the country that now dominate the news cycle, media outlets reported Saturday night that 5 people had been killed and more than 20 wounded that day in Odessa, Texas, before the apparent gunman was fatally shot by police.

During Cumer’s memorial, teacher Brandy LaQuatra recalled the good-natured pranks Cumer and his classmates played on her when he was in her advanced English class during his freshman year. She also said he made a point of greeting her politely at the beginning of each class, and thanking her at the end.

“I knew that his faith was so important to him, and it was important to me,” LaQuatra said. “And it was so nice that I could watch someone make a difference from that perspective. And I knew that there was someone else in the building also on my side trying to make sure that people kept faith and goodness and that they were spreading it.”

While he was at the high school, Cumer was also a boy’s doubles tennis champion and member of the National Honor Society, band and Bible club, among other activities his classmate Benjamin Marasco listed.

“I could only wonder how many hands he had because there were so many cookie jars in his life,” Marasco said.

Mark Spruill, who graduated the year after Cumer, said they traveled together during a trip to Spain and France one year. They roomed with another friend, but there were only two small beds, so one person had to spend the night on a cot.

“Without debate or drawing straws, Nicholas immediately volunteered to take the cot,” Spruill said.

“Even after we both offered our beds, he would always refuse and simply say, ‘I got this,’” Spruill went on. “That just goes to show how selfless Nick was.”

This article has been updated to correct information about how the gunman in the Odessa, Texas, mass shooting was killed.

Gideon Bradshaw/Observer-Reporter 

Nicholas Cumer event

Gideon Bradshaw/Observer-Reporter

Vicky and Ron Cumer speak on Saturday during an event in memory of their son Nicholas, who was 25 when he was killed Aug. 4 in a mass shooting.

Police chief: 5 dead in West Texas mass shooting

ODESSA, Texas (AP) – At least five people were dead after a gunman who hijacked a postal service vehicle in West Texas shot more than 20 people, authorities said Saturday. The gunman was killed and three law enforcement officers were among the injured.

The shooting began with a traffic stop where gunfire was exchanged with police, setting off a chaotic afternoon during which the suspect hijacked a U.S. Postal Service vehicle and began firing at random in the area of Odessa and Midland, hitting multiple people. Cell phone video showed people running out of a movie theater, and as Odessa television station KOSA aired breaking developments on live TV, their broadcast was interrupted by police telling them they had to clear the area.

Police initially reported that there could be more than one shooter, but Odessa Police Chief Michael Gerke said authorities now believe it was only one.

“Once this individual was taken out of the picture, there have been no more victims,” Gerke said.

Gerke described the suspect as a white male in his 30s. He did not name him but said he has some idea who he is.

Gerke said that in addition to the injured officers, there were at least 21 civilian shooting victims. He said at least five people died. He did not say whether the shooter was included among those five dead, and it was not clear whether he was including the five dead among the at least 21 civilian shooting victims.

The shooting comes just weeks after a gunman in the Texas border city of El Paso killed 22 people after opening fire at a Walmart. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week held two meetings with lawmakers about how to prevent mass more shootings in Texas. He said he would visit the area today.

Seven people remained in critical condition hours after the shooting, said Russell Tippin, CEO of Medical Center Hospital in Odessa. He said a child under 2 years old was also transported to another hospital. He also said one person the hospital had received had died, although it was unclear if that victim was among the five dead that Gerke reported.

Tippin said 13 shooting victims were being treated at the hospital Saturday evening but he did not give their conditions or other information about the victims. Social workers and professional counselors are at the hospital to provide support to the families of shooting victims, Tippin said. He also said the hospital has been locked down for that safety of the staff and patients.

“Right now the hospital is stable, it’s secure,” Tippin said.

Dustin Fawcett was sitting in his truck at a Starbucks in Odessa when he heard at least six gunshots ring out less than 50 yards behind him.

At first, he thought it might have been a tire blowing but he heard more shots and spotted a white sedan with a passenger window that had been shattered. That’s when he thought, “Oh man, this is a shooting.”

Fawcett, 28, an Odessa transportation consultant, “got out to make sure everyone was safe” but found that no one had been struck by the gunfire nearby. He said a little girl was bleeding, but she hadn’t been shot, and that he found out she was grazed in the face.

Fawcett said authorities responded quickly and when police pulled out their rifles and vests he knew that “this is not a drive-by. This is something else, this is something bigger.”

Vice President Mike Pence said following the shooting that President Donald Trump and his administration “remain absolutely determined” to work with leaders in both parties in Congress to take such steps “so we can address and confront this scourge of mass atrocities in our country.”

Preparing to fly to Poland, Pence told reporters that Trump is “fully engaged” and closely monitoring the investigation. He said, “Our hearts go out to all the victims, the families and loved ones.” He also commended law enforcement “for their swift, courageous response.”

Pence said Trump has deployed the federal government in response to the shootings. He says Trump has spoken to the attorney general and that the FBI is already assisting local law enforcement.

Odessa is about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southwest of Midland. Both are more than 300 miles (483 kilometers) west of Dallas.