In Norristown, tents are seen as a solution to homelessness. Many disagree.
While rancor builds, the primary homeless shelter in Norristown, which houses 50 people, is scheduled to be relocated elsewhere in Montgomery County.
When people facing homelessness in Norristown call Montgomery County officials for help, they’re told shelter is in short supply.
So, they are issued tents.
The idea enrages advocates in the municipality, who see this as an inadequate response to homelessness, which is increasing countywide.
Business owners in town are also angered by the tents, but for a different reason: They dislike the optics, along with the sight of individuals experiencing homelessness using drugs, panhandling, and sleeping in Main Street doorways. Merchants say it reminds them of Kensington.
“Some business owners throw a lot of negative stereotypes at the homeless community,” said Norristown Municipal Council member Hakim Jones. “They’d say, ‘The homeless need to get jobs, get their acts together,’ demonstrating ignorance about what people should do without knowing their backstory.”
While rancor builds, the primary homeless shelter in Norristown, which houses 50 people, is scheduled to be relocated elsewhere in Montgomery County. Some worry that this step could fill the municipality with still more people experiencing homelessness.
Meanwhile, flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Ida damaged a low-income Norristown apartment complex with about 90 units, forcing tenants to evacuate. Those people are part of the total 174 households countywide that the storm rendered homeless, according to county officials. Currently, they’re living in hotel rooms funded by the county. They add to the 181 households countywide identified as experiencing homelessness (in shelter or outside) earlier this year.
All this is occurring while winter creeps in, promising the estimated 50 people living unsheltered on the streets of Norristown that they’ll soon be facing Code Blue nights of icy misery.
“There are big political conversations about all this,” said Mark Boorse, director of program development for Access Services, a nonprofit contracted by the county to run street outreach and deliver the tents countywide. He said the number of calls for help with homelessness have increased from three a day last year to 10 daily today, often because of the loss of a job or a home because of the pandemic.
”The idea of us giving out tents isn’t going over well,” he added. “But some people have no place to be. They have to sleep somewhere.”
But Donald Ketcham, who owns Cycle Stop Inc. on Main Street, a motorcycle service and accessories shop, said he’s tired of seeing “homeless drug addicts” panhandling in the street. “These people will destroy our town,” he said, adding that he has compassion for those who are homeless “who don’t use drugs.”
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He said his views are shared by numerous Norristown businesspeople, several of whom declined to be interviewed.
“These homeless panhandlers stand on Main Street, trashing intersections, leaving fecal matter and urine, and keeping my customers uncomfortable. My wife won’t even come here herself.
“It’s horrible for our town and everybody’s business. We’re at a tipping point. Either we clean up Norristown or we’ll be Kensington in a couple of years.
Beside a stretch of freight-train tracks on a rise over Stony Creek in Norristown, David Renner and his wife, Shirley Pierson — homeless for the last year — showed off a tent delivered by Boorse.
“It’s been a struggle for us to get an apartment,” said Renner, 50, a former chef from Bristol overtaken by a litany of hard times. Pierson, 64, was a farmer outside Allentown whose bad hips ended her working days. The two have been married for 17 years.
Aware of the tent controversy, the couple are nonetheless grateful for even a canvas home, which they make livable with a donated propane heater. “People in town let us be,” Renner said. “We’re doing OK.”
Still, “it’s insane that tents are a solution,” said Thomas Lepera, vice president of the Norristown Municipal Council. “We’ve done little to nothing to help the homeless, yet we’re building a $400 million justice center in town,” which will be attached to the existing courthouse and completed in 2026. “It’s just ridiculous.”
Lepera and others criticized Your Way Home, the agency charged with helping those who are homeless, using Access Services to distribute tents. It’s a public-private partnership overseen by Montgomery County’s Office of Housing and Community Development.
“Your Way Home tells people to call 211 if they’re homeless,” said Heather Lewis, a Norristown council member and head of the Reuniting Families Bail Fund. “They make people think this is 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 that is.”
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In a corner
In response, Kayleigh Silver, administrator of the Office of Housing and Community Development, said her agency is doing the best it can with limited resources. “We have to stop pointing fingers and thinking one entity will solve this,” she said. “The homeless crisis is like climate change: We need massive investments and all hands on deck from government, corporations, and individuals.”
She added that the private rental market in Montgomery County is exploding, crowding out low-income housing. That causes a huge wealth gap, hindering the goal of moving people who are homeless into their own places. “Well-off communities avoid 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, the average 2020 monthly rents there were $1,362, up nearly 4% from 2019, according to RentCafe, an online real estate analyst. In King of Prussia, also in the county, rents were $1,641, up nearly 2% and close to the highest average rentals in the state — in Philadelphia, at $1,652.
Tents, then, become a necessity, because there’s little funding for much else, Silver said, adding, “We’re backed into a corner.”
The county has public housing, but it’s not available to all who need it. Joel Johnson, executive director of the Montgomery County Housing Authority, said there are 550 public-housing units, with a wait list of 20,000 households. At the same time, 2,300 housing vouchers are being used, with a wait list of 500 households, he said.
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Meanwhile, the homeless shelter on the grounds of Norristown State Hospital (the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center, or CHOC) is in flux because the shelter’s lease is up next July, and the state is returning the land on which the facility sits to Norristown, according to CHOC director Christina Jordan. Officials in the municipality say the land will be developed to enhance Norristown’s tax base — not to establish another shelter.
Thus far, no other community in the county wants the shelter, which worries advocates.
“The sad fact is that if someone in Montgomery County is homeless, there are next to no resources available,” said Danielle Phillips, director of community engagement for State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti (D., Montgomery/Delaware), who has an office on Norristown’s Main Street.
Lt. Michael Bishop, acting deputy chief of Norristown Police, said people experiencing homelessness have been “dislocated by SEPTA from its local transportation center onto the streets,” giving the impression there’s been a greater influx of people who are homeless than there really are. A SEPTA spokesperson disputed the term dislocated, saying SEPTA worked to find services for people.
Bishop added that he’s met with local businesspeople agitated about individuals who are homeless, explaining that “homelessness is not a crime.”
Those meetings can become acrimonious, say people who have attended.
Council member Jones, who was at a meeting, and others say those who are homeless may travel by train from other areas — Kensington included — because they’re drawn to the preponderance of social services traditionally found in Norristown.
That’s what compelled Anthony, 55, to leave “uppity” Lansdale for Norristown, where he sleeps in a parking garage. He didn’t want his last name published because he was revealing private details about his drug use. A former landscape worker from Fishtown who said he’s beaten his crack habit, Anthony said: “I’m mellow now, not the wild man I was.”
He likes Norristown’s agencies that offer food and clothes. But, he added, it’s growing colder, which aggravates the arthritis in his back.
“At this point,” he said, twisting in pain, “I just want to be inside again.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.