NEPA native cares for Luzerne County’s homeless during pandemic and beyond

Brian Johns tours a homeless encampment in northeastern Pennsylvania (submitted photo)

MOOSIC, Pa. — Brian Johns has a purpose. When he goes to work everyday, he tries to help people get themselves out of a tough situation. 

Sometimes that means helping them fill out a form. Other times, it means connecting them with the right resources. It might even mean, as the COVID-19 pandemic grows in northeastern Pennsylvania, bringing them water or hand sanitizer to wash their hands. 

Brian, an outreach and service navigator for Volunteers of America of Pennsylvania, spends his days working with the homeless throughout Luzerne County. He understands where the people he helps are because he’s been in their shoes. At 18, he became homeless, and would struggle for two years finding a permanent home. 

“I’ve been down that road,” he told the Capital-Star, “and sometimes people just pass you by and think that’s the way people want to be.”

It’s not, he points out. 

“Brian is an amazing asset to our agency,” said Sam Orth, co-director of programming for Volunteers of America of Pennsylvania. “He brings real life experience to his job and makes genuine relationships with each client he encounters doing outreach.”

Johns’  own story is an example of how someone can end up homeless. He was 18, the oldest of seven, when his mom died, and his dad left, and then died. 

Most of his siblings were able to be adopted. But he was left on his own. He slept on friend’s couches. He stayed in shelters. 

Johns, now 28, recalls the frustration of filling out apartment applications that required references. He hadn’t been paying bills when his parents died, so he didn’t have references.

“How do I know three landlords?” he asked. 

Finally, Volunteers of America helped.They got him into a match-leasing program that helped him afford a home. Now, he’s working for the organization, trying to help people who are in a similar situation.

“I don’t treat it as a job,” he said. “I treat it as someone going to help someone else and then can help someone else.”

He visits homeless encampments in communities throughout the county, not just Wilkes-Barre, but in the working class suburban municipalities of Kingston, Hanover and Plains. 

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He’ll check on the who is living where. He’ll try to get them IDs, Social Security cards. They’ll visit a local library, get a temporary library card, and they’ll learn how to use a computer.

He explains how the pandemic has affected the homeless community. First, he sees more people looking for housing. 

“It’s getting harder to house the clients and connecting the services,” he said, later adding, “The encampments, it seems like they’re getting bigger.”

As of midday Wednesday, Luzerne County has had 2,111 cases of COVID-19 and 82 deaths, according to state Department of Health data.

That’s the seventh-most cases among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties despite being the 12th most populous county.

But the homeless don’t see the news. So they don’t have the information most have about the pandemic’s dangers, or the importance of washing their hands and following social distancing.

“They do not know what to do,” Johns explained. “They’re moving their communities together, getting closer together.”

So he has to inform them.

With public parks closed, there aren’t as many restrooms for the homeless to utilize, so Johns makes sure to bring water that can be used for hand-washing.

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He brings the encampments’ residents plastic bags to use for trash, which he’s seeing build up in the areas.

Safety precautions mean he has to practice social distancing while serving these communities. 

He’s not about to give up. His purpose keeps driving him. He repeatedly brings up the organization’s efforts to help the homeless. 

“We couldn’t have helped as many people as we have if it weren’t for him going out there and connecting with these individuals,” Orth said.

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.