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  • Writer's pictureMichael Hays

Norristown Emails Show Disdain for Homeless

In the 14 months that have passed since Montgomery County’s only year-round homeless shelter closed, both encampments and evictions have risen. Meanwhile, Sept. 21 is the upcoming deadline for remaining campers to vacate the Peco owned property along the Schuylkill River Trail.

Much of this suffering was predicted by social service advocates back in June 2022 when the 50-bed Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center (CHOC) closed. We have learned about desperate people breaking into the shuttered facility during the winter of 2022-23.

(Photo credit: Philadelphia Inquirer) Stacey Tejada resided in the Norristown encampment.

Norristown officials, both elected and appointed, have scrambled to deal with the ramifications of Council’s ordinance that makes remaining in public parks after dark against the law. In our view, their appointed Administrator, Crandall Jones, has taken a cold and dismissive tone toward the homeless individuals who call Norristown home, according to emails provided to the Montco 30% Project via a Right to Know request.

For instance, on June 10, 2022, administrative assistant Lisa Bobyock wrote in an email to Jones, “Thank you for including me in the homeless meeting this afternoon. I liked your comment, ‘Norristown is happy to be part of the solution, but NOT the host!’”

Later that summer in August, while discussing using Building 9 (CHOC) for fire department training before its ultimate demolition, Jones responded: “Cool, tear it to pieces!”

Earlier that spring, on March 23, 2022, Jones wrote to all members of Norristown Council after touring the camp along Stony Creek, near Markley and Main streets. It was there that the group observed about 11 sites, as well as a wooden structure.

“We’ve obtained estimates from $7K to $30K to clean it up,” Jones wrote. “Chief Wood advises that there is a 6-month wait list at the shelter and that the Your Way Home operation does not want NPD (police) presence during their outreach. Before I give the go-ahead to have the area cleaned, which would result in displacing the encampment, I wanted to check with you, as any negative feedback from the cleanup will be directed at you.”

Council President Thomas Lepera responded, “For me it’s a quality of life issue. Our tax payers don’t deserve to deal with it because of the failure of the county. I say CLEAN IT UP.”

Riverfront and Poley Parks are referenced several times in the emails, with police and public works struggling to clear encampments.

On July 16, 2022, Kristi Barletta wrote to Jones:

“I am working on a plan to help remove the homeless from Riverfront. I know ideally we want them out of town & off the street but based on conversations at this time it seems like they will just relocate in town. Is there anywhere in town that can be suggested as a safe space for them to move just so they don’t set up in another location that is not the best for Norristown. Somewhere hidden?”

April 11, 2023, Lt. Michael Bishop, Norristown Police, wrote:

“What is your plan on cleaning out the encampment at Poley Park? The homeless there are well aware that Friday they need to be out of there, but I have a suspicion they will ust relocate to the SEPTA area at Main & Markley. We can have a couple officers go down with PW on Friday to ensure everything goes smoothly, but I need a time that they will be needed. Outside agencies have already been in contact with the folks there, but due to the lack of housing available, they will ultimately pop up somewhere else.

April 5, 2023, Jones advised public works and police officers:

“Now that the weather is warming, it’s time to get the encampment at Poley Park cleaned out. I’m not sure if they are still using; but, if they are, we need to give them notice to move on and get the area cleaned out. We’re moving forward on the skate park project….

Closure of CHOC leaves social service agency desperate for cooperation

The closure of the facility left a vulnerable population with no place to go, especially during months outside the deep freeze of winter, when “Code Blue '' emergency declarations allow the temporary opening of beds in churches and elsewhere.

This January, Jones learned of growing reports of break-ins at the former CHOC site, as former residents desperate for warmth began breaking in. He wrote to staff:

“As of 11/1/2022, 68 acres of State Hospital Ground, including Building 9 (formerly the CHOC) was conveyed to the Redevelopment Authority on behalf of Norristown. It is now our property. I’m getting word that the homeless are now breaking into the property to access it. Let’s please put things in place to resolve that and further secure the building. I’m going to schedule another walk-through with Pennoni (engineer) to look at mining the metals and equipment from the building before they are stolen.”

In an email that same day, a representative of Pennsylvania’s Department of General Services emailed several colleagues and an attorney about “windows, doors, and locks (sic) being broken in their efforts to gain access to the building.”

For those who followed the Lepera saga – when he offered to bus homeless individuals to Villanova University in exchange for gift cards – you know that the council leader believes that Norristown shoulders too much of the responsibility for the county’s safety net. One of the agencies that contracts with Montgomery County for human services, Resources for Human Development (RHD), reached out to Norristown officials to plead for more coordination in the face of suffering.

Last year, RHD Regional Director Owen Camuso wrote about the growing backlog to place residents following the closure of CHOC and a desire to partner with organizations and government to help….

“I again am reaching out for a meeting to understand all key stakeholders’ needs of where we might be able to fill the gaps in services post closure. I strongly feel that this is not one single provider organization or government entity issue, this is all our issues, and we have the responsibility to partner on this to try and minimize the risk for people without a safe place to sleep at night.

He continued, “Norristown, please note that we will reach out to the other municipalities; however, from our assessment we feel that Norristown will see the biggest impact due to what we have seen on the years with the key homeless services components. In the last year 2-1-1 have received around 4,000 assistance calls from Norristown Residents, which is the highest in the county. Homeless Street Outreach has over 50% of their caseload engagements in Norristown, and 40% of our current residents report being from Norristown.”

Camuso added: “You have communicated your stance with us about other municipalities needing to take on human service programs, and we have heard that, and factored that into our relocation plans; however, I do hope that you hear us that, without a homeless facility anywhere in the county, we are leaving Norristown Residents in a vulnerable situation.”

To be fair, Jones, Norristown’s administrator, did express a willingness to work with Your Way Home, the county’s coordinated single point of entry for housing-insecure people. In August 2022, he wrote to a colleague, “Council just authorized advertisement of the dusk to dawn ordinance to support closing off the park. We’ve got a construction project about to begin there and no one needs to be onsite. I think your teams have handled the situation perfectly and if Your Way Home really wants to help that’s fine – let’s find a way for them to be helpful. Certainly feel free to meet with them to see how we can collaborate to support the folks that are encamped there. However, we’re not supporting an encampment being there.”

Norristown Council’s next public meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 19 at 6:30 p.m. Meetings are currently being held at the MCIU building, 2 W. Lafayette Street.

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