In the city, tents are seen as a solution for the homeless; Many disagree | Pennsylvania News


By ALFRED LUBRANO, The Philadelphia Inquirer

NORRISTOWN, Pa. (AP) – When people facing homelessness in Norristown call Montgomery County officials for help, they are told shelter is scarce.

Thus, they receive tents.

The idea enrages city advocates, who see it as an inadequate response to homelessness, which is on the rise across the county.

Business owners in the city are also angry with the tents, but for a different reason – they don’t like the optics, as well as the sight of homeless people using drugs, begging and sleeping. in the gates of the main street. Traders say it reminds them of Kensington.

Political cartoons

“Some business owners cast a lot of negative stereotypes about the homeless community,” said Hakim Jones, member of Norristown City Council. “They were saying, ‘The homeless need to find work, to pull themselves together,’ demonstrating their ignorance of what people should do without knowing their history.”

As resentment grows, Norristown’s main homeless shelter, which houses 50 people, is expected to be relocated elsewhere in Montgomery County. Some fear that this step will fill the municipality with even more people experiencing homelessness.

Meanwhile, flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida damaged a low-income Norristown apartment complex with around 90 units, forcing tenants to evacuate. These people are among the 174 total households in the county that the storm made homeless, according to county officials. Currently, they live in county funded hotel rooms. They join the 181 households in the county identified as homeless (in a shelter or outside) earlier this year.

All of this is happening as winter sets in, promising the 50 or so homeless people on the streets of Norristown that they will soon be facing nights of icy Code Blue misery.

“There are big political conversations about all of this,” said Mark Boorse, director of program development for Access Services, a nonprofit organization commissioned by the county to conduct street outreach and deliver tents throughout the county. He said the number of calls for help for the homeless has risen from three a day last year to 10 a day today, often due to the loss of a job or a housing because of the pandemic.

“The idea that we are handing out tents does not work well,” he added. “But some people don’t have a place to be. They must be sleeping somewhere.

But Donald Ketcham, owner of Cycle Stop Inc. on Main Street, a motorcycle service and accessories store, said he was fed up with “homeless drug addicts” begging on the streets. “These people are going to destroy our city,” he said, adding that he had compassion for the homeless “who do not use drugs”.

He said his views are shared by many Norristown businessmen, several of whom declined to be interviewed.

“These homeless beggars stand on Main Street, trashing intersections, leaving feces and urine behind and making my clients uncomfortable. My wife won’t even come here herself.

“It’s horrible for our city and everyone’s businesses. We are at a tipping point. Either clean up Norristown or be Kensington in a few years.

Beside a stretch of railroad track on a climb above Stony Creek in Norristown, David Renner and his wife, Shirley Pierson – homeless since last year – showed a tent delivered by Boorse.

“It has been a struggle for us to get an apartment,” said Renner, 50, a former Bristol chef overwhelmed by a litany of hard times. Pierson, 64, was a farmer outside of Allentown whose bad hips put an end to her work day. The two have been married for 17 years.

Aware of the tent controversy, the couple are nonetheless grateful for even a canvas house, which they make habitable with a donated propane heater. “The people of the city let us do it,” Renner said. ” We are well. “

Still, “it doesn’t make sense that tents are a solution,” said Thomas Lepera, vice president of Norristown City Council. “We haven’t done anything to help the homeless, but we are building a $ 400 million justice center in town,” which will be attached to the existing courthouse and completed in 2026. “This is just ludicrous. . “

Lepera and others have criticized Your Way Home, the agency responsible for helping the homeless, for using Access Services to distribute tents. It is a public-private partnership overseen by the Montgomery County Housing and Community Development Office.

“Your Way Home tells people to call 211 if they are homeless,” said Heather Lewis, Norristown board member and head of the Reuniting Families Bail Fund. “They make people think it’s a resource, but when you call they tell you to sleep in the park in a tent.

“I don’t even know the word for what it is.”

In response, Kayleigh Silver, administrator of the Housing and Community Development Office, said her agency was doing its best with limited resources. “We have to stop pointing fingers and thinking that one entity will solve this,” she said. “The homeless crisis is like climate change: we need massive investment and all hands from government, businesses and individuals. “

She added that the private rental market in Montgomery County is exploding, crowding out low-rental housing. This causes a huge wealth gap, hampering the goal of moving homeless people to their own housing. “Well-off communities shy away from building low-income housing and low-income people are left behind,” Silver said.

Even though Norristown has a poverty rate of 21.5%, the highest in the county, average monthly rents in 2020 were $ 1,362, up almost 4% from 2019, according to RentCafe, a real estate analyst. in line. In King of Prussia, also in the county, rents were $ 1,641, up almost 2% and close to the highest average rents in the state – in Philadelphia, at $ 1,652.

Tents then become a necessity, as there is little funding for a lot of other things, Silver said, adding, “We’re stuck in a corner.”

The county has social housing, but it is not available to everyone who needs it. Joel Johnson, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority, said there were 550 public housing units, with a waiting list of 20,000 households. At the same time, 2,300 housing vouchers are being used, with a waiting list of 500 households, he said.

Meanwhile, the homeless shelter on the grounds of Norristown State Hospital (the Coordinated Center for the Homeless or CHOC) is undergoing major changes as the shelter’s lease expires next July and the State is returning the land on which the establishment is located in Norristown, according to CHOC director Christina Jordan. Municipality officials said the land would be developed to improve Norristown’s tax base, not to establish another shelter.

So far, no other community in the county wants the shelter, which worries defenders.

“The sad reality is that if someone in Montgomery County is homeless, there are hardly any resources available,” said Danielle Phillips, director of community engagement for State Senator Amanda Cappelletti. (D., Montgomery / Delaware), which has an office on Main Street in Norristown.

Lt. Michael Bishop, Acting Deputy Chief of Police Norristown, said the homeless people were “evicted by SEPTA from its local transport hub on the streets”, giving the impression that there has been a greater influx of homeless people than there actually is. A spokesperson for SEPTA disputed the term dislocated, saying SEPTA was working to find services for people.

Bishop added that he had met local businessmen agitated by homeless people, explaining that “homelessness is not a crime”.

These meetings can become acrimonious, say those who attended.

Council member Jones, who was at a meeting, and others say homeless people can travel by train from other areas – including Kensington – because they are drawn to the preponderance of social services that l ‘traditionally found in Norristown.

This is what prompted Anthony, 55, to leave Lansdale “uppity” for Norristown, where he sleeps in a parking lot. He did not want his last name published as he was revealing private details about his drug use. A former Fishtown landscaper who said he got over his crack habit, Anthony said, “I’m gentle now, not the wild man I was.”

He likes the Norristown agencies that offer food and clothing. But, he added, it’s getting colder and colder, making arthritis in his back worse.

“At this point,” he said, writhing in pain, “I just want to be inside again.”

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