Four days before Christmas, St. John’s Church in Norristown needed a variance from the local zoning board to avoid closing in the midst of freezing temperatures.
After hearing supportive testimony from eight people, the Norristown Zoning Heard board granted a variance with a 5-0 vote that allows St. John’s to continue operating a night-time only shelter for single men and women during county-declared “Code Blue” nights (when wind chill or ambient temperatures drop below 32 degrees F) between Nov. 1 and March 30.
Located at 23 E. Airy Street near the courthouse and next door to the shelter operator, the Norristown Hospitality Center, Father Christopher Schwenk’s worship center received a notice of violation from the municipality on Dec. 12. Norristown Council instructed their solicitor, Sean Kilkenny, to oppose the variance request at Thursday’s zoning hearing board meeting.
Kilkenny sent two legal representatives in his place, who were grilled by ZHB members about the notice of violation. At the heart of the discussion was a “fire watch,” which requires Norristown Fire Department staff to be on the shelter premises during all hours of operation. Sean Turner, of the planning and code enforcement office, said the fire watch was implemented as a “compromise” with the shelter, since its use is not permitted in the TC (Transit Center) district.
However, Norristown’s attorneys repeatedly could not answer questions posed by the ZHB because no one from the fire department attended the 7 p.m. hearing. Turner said no one was available. It was also noted that the fire watch does not exist under local ordinance – just an agreement. In response to questions, Schwenk said the church is equipped with centralized fire detection equipment but no sprinklers.
From left: Father Christopher Schwenk, Andrea Gardner, and members of the Norristown Zoning Hearing Board.
One speaker after another, including Hospitality Center Board Vice President Andrea Gardner, spoke about the need for shelter beds in Montgomery County. Haws Avenue United Methodist Church, the other Code Blue shelter in Norristown, filled all 30 beds within a half-hour Wednesday night. St. John’s 25 beds filled after that, as nighttime temperatures hovered in the 20s.
“We need this life-saving shelter,” Gardner said, noting that Code Blue came about because people discovered “frozen, dead bodies” on the streets of Philadelphia.
Dec. 21 was also the occasion for a handful of “Longest Night” church services, where congregants remember unhoused individuals who died during the past year.
Amalthea Leland, a certified peer specialist at the Hospitality Center, said that during non-Code Blue nights a lot of their guests sleep near the transit center or by the Schuylkill River.
“We’re talking about human beings,” Leland said. “Where are they supposed to go?”
Amalthea Leland addresses the board in Norristown.