NORRISTOWN- In the past week there have been rumors of a planned Municipality of Norristown “city-wide” sweep of the unhoused who occupy encampments in Norristown. That is false—there has never been a discussion of a city-wide sweep. In fact, the discussion regarding encampments centered on two properties—one owned by PECO along the Schuylkill River Trail and a second one nearby that initially was believed to be owned by the Municipality. After researching property records, the second property is actually part of the Waters of the Commonwealth, which is state-owned. As such, the Municipality has no jurisdiction on that property. During the initial conversation, there was a sidebar discussion about a second site, also not owned by the Municipality, that has been determined by our property records search to belong to the Stoney Creek Railroad Company/SEPTA.
There was never a discussion that the Municipality would engage on this or any other site as party of a city-wide sweep. However, as with any other property owner, in the interest of public safety, the Norristown Police Department will be present to ensure that any transition of the unhoused off private property will be undertaken peaceably and respectfully with all parties involved.
Over the past eight years, the Municipal Council sought the engagement of both county officials and elected leaders in other communities to work collaboratively in strategically addressing Montgomery County homelessness. We are encouraged that Commission Chair Ken Lawrence and a few other communities have expressed interest in doing so. Because we, like other county seats, are the home to the county agencies that are charged with leading on homelessness and other social safety net issues, Norristown is falsely characterized as the sole community that has a homelessness issue.
Montgomery County estimates that 60 percent of the people in encampments in Norristown are not from Norristown. In the Fall of 2022, we conducted a month-long survey of encampments within our boundaries—68 percent of the people interviewed were from other Montgomery County cities, other counties and other states. A copy of our survey report is available at norristown.org. The homeless in Norristown is a not Norristown issue; rather, it is a symptom of county-wide, state-wide, and nation-wide homelessness.
While many want to berate Norristown for trying to address the various public safety and health issues, and expense to Norristown taxpayers, the Municipal Council recognizes what is happening on the ground in communities like ours. People are forced to live in unsanitary and unsafe environments, while being victimized by others within the encampments. Norristown residents and businesses are calling on the Council to address how the issue is affecting their quality of life and economic viability. Here is a link to the data on police and fire response to encampments over the past two years: NPD/NFD Unhoused population incidents. Norristown has spent over $60,000 in addressing third-party cleanup of unsanitary and hazardous sites thus far. The last estimate we received on what we initially thought was our property would result in taxpayer expense of over $100,000.
The Municipal Council thinks it is unconscionable that the public discourse is about allowing people to live outside in encampments rather than the collective failure of addressing what is happening on the ground in a systematic way. Our perspective has always been to collaboratively work with all communities to find inside alternatives—both short- and long-term—to house people in dignity. Our request has always been that Montgomery County lead a discussion among all county communities about setting up a network of social safety net facilities so that people can respectfully, and with dignity, be provided with temporary and permanent services they need with roofs over their heads and in the communities they lived in before their unfortunate circumstances. Why is there no public outrage about people being forced to live outside, period?
Much uniformed discussion is made about the closing of the homeless shelter on the State Hospital grounds in Norristown. For decades, the municipality has sought land on these grounds in pursuit of something most communities in Montgomery County take for granted—sustainability as a city. Fifty beds in Norristown was never the solution for the hundreds of Montgomery County homeless. Concentrating the provision of other social safety net services for Montgomery, Delaware, Chester and Bucks counties in Norristown was never a solution for addressing the needs of people in four counties. All these agencies knew in 2017 that the property would be conveyed to Norristown in 2022. All were advised to develop strategies for continuation of services in other locations by 2020. Instead, there were attacks on Norristown for daring to seek redevelopment to better the lives of its taxpayers.
For those who would accuse Norristown of ‘nimby-ism’, we respond that, for generations, Norristown and Pottstown have been numbers one and two, respectively, in addressing Montgomery County’s affordable housing and social safety net issues. The Municipal Council has always committed to being a part of a county-wide collaborative of communities—led by Montgomery County—to address these issues. We continue to be willing to be a part of a collaborative effort and call on the county and more of our sister communities to join in problem solving that involves both immediate and long-term housing/social services needs.
While the council is empathetic to the dire situations that have brought about homelessness to people near and far, the Municipality of Norristown does not have the budget, staff or resources to address the effects of a county-wide issue alone. The Municipal Council of Norristown continues the call to work collaboratively with its partners in county and local government, the faith-based community and county-funded social service agencies, to do what is best to ensure the health and vitality of the unhoused in Norristown and throughout the county.