NORRISTOWN — People came out in droves to Tuesday night’s Norristown Municipal Council meeting, days after a news report put its council president in the hot seat.
The meeting served as a venting session for advocates, area residents and concerned citizens, who spoke about the homelessness situation in Norristown, as it appears to be at a tipping point.
“Now part of me, I’m exhausted, but part of me is glad this conversation has gotten to the point where it has now,” said Norristown Muncipal Council President Thomas Lepera. “We have the attention; we have the news people here. We have politicians calling me and reaching out now saying ‘what do we have to do to help this situation?’ We’ve got private companies reaching out saying ‘what can we do to solve this issue?’ And I’m thankful for that because we’ve only been asking nicely for eight-plus years.”
The heightened response stemmed from an article published last Saturday June 3 in the Philadelphia Inquirer featuring alleged remarks pertaining to plans to deal with the area’s homeless encampments. It also referenced alleged comments about busing homeless individuals to Villanova University in Delaware County. Lepera has denied making those comments.
Emotions spill over
Reaction amassed on social media over the weekend, prompting higher than usual turnout to the Tuesday evening council meeting.
Some people got to the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit early, holding signs protesting any possibility of a forced removal of local homeless encampments.
“The recent remarks by Council President Tom Lepera have been completely unacceptable,” said Norristown resident Jane Pekol. “Norristown deserves better from their leadership.”
Cheltenham Township resident Bill England made the trip to the county seat in hopes of letting “people know that this is not acceptable, and we need to have a different approach and hopefully to tone down the rhetoric. I’m really concerned about that.”
Pekol stressed “standing up for the unhoused” and “stop(ping) the sweeps” remained a priority.
“That’s the most urgent and pressing matter,” Pekol said. “These people, they’re not choosing to live by the river in tents, in filth; they’re forced to do so. So stop the sweeps and let’s focus on actual solutions for affordable housing.”
Deborah Brown, a Norristown native now living in East Norriton Township, agreed. Brown also serves as co-founder of the Montco 30% Project, a nonprofit focusing on affordable housing.
“The goal today is really to shine a spotlight on supporting and helping the underserved and underprivileged, so their voices are heard,” Brown said. “They can’t speak for themselves and we’re here to speak for them by showing a presence of support.”
Standing room only
Inside the meeting room, it was standing room only as attendees held signs that read “respect Norristown borough encampment,” “stop the sweeps” and “this is a housing crisis.”
Lepera began the meeting’s public comment session with a statement, referencing the news report he asserted “misrepresented my positions on a very serious issue and crisis.”
“First and foremost, I never had a plan to bus homeless people to Villanova,” Lepera said. “That would be immoral, inhumane and so many other ways.
“I did however, out of frustration, speak about how I would protest myself, and bus some of my friends and constituents that are frustrated with the situation to Villanova — to sleep out there to see how long it would last before the police stopped us, and I don’t think it would be that long before they did,” he continued.
Norristown officials issued a statement Tuesday morning that sought to crush any rumors of suspected sweeps “of the unhoused who occupy encampments in Norristown.”
“That is false—there has never been a discussion of a city-wide sweep,” said a municipal spokesperson.
Rumblings about the potential need for about a dozen people to vacate a 3,000-square-foot stretch of land just beyond the Schuylkill River Trail owned by PECO had been circulating in recent weeks.
“There was never a discussion that the municipality would engage on this or any other site as part of a city-wide sweep,” the statement read. “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.”
Burden should be shared
Lepera has long attributed several factors for the area’s uptick in homelessness, including the number of the county’s social services agencies located within the municipality, which he stressed contributes to “the tune of about $3 million in lost tax revenue each and every year.”
Additionally, the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center, a 50-bed homeless shelter and resource center situated on the grounds of the Norristown State Hospital closed last June, amid the acquisition of 68 acres of state land to the municipality.
“Now I said I’m not anti-homeless,” he said. “However, I do not believe that we can sit here and let outside forces try to socially engineer Norristown into being a place where all the undesirables that have to go on in a community like social services, and methadone clinics, and drug rehabs, and homeless shelters have to be in Norristown or Pottstown, because for far too long in this country — not just here, in this entire country— these things get placed in Black and brown communities where voter turnout is low because politicians know that there’s not going to be any pushback.”
Commenter Tim Kozak took issue with Lepera’s categorization of “undesirables.” Other area residents had much to say on both sides of the issue.
“I just really want to remind all the council members that you were elected to represent all the constituents of Norristown,” said commenter Linda Smith. “Not just the well-to-do, and not just the stably housed. The homeless people here are also constituents and you represent them as well.”
Some criticized elected officials for the way things have been handled, or not been handled, to alleviate issues and assist people experiencing homelessness.
“The current situation — and believe me I’m going to have plenty of heat for the commissioners too, OK — but I am sick to death of people with genuine political power pretending there’s nothing they can do about things,” said Norristown resident David McMahon.
The municipality’s staggering eviction rate came up in conversation, which Montco 30% Project co-founder Mike Hays, of Bridgeport, said impacts “14 per 100 renters in Norristown.”
“This community has the highest poverty rate, and the highest eviction rate, and that leads directly to people being on the streets,” England said.
Effects on business
Others expressed concerns over negative ramifications on the municipality’s business community. Attorney David Schiller said a nearby law firm relocated to Blue Bell, after dealing with “people sleeping” and an “overdose” in the parking lot.
“The homeless problem impacts business people in Norristown,” Schiller said, adding that “if things aren’t better for business people, business people will leave Norristown.”
Norristown resident John Fennell recalled an instance when a “five-gallon bucket filled of feces from the homeless encampments in town was dumped into my yard.”
Eric Donovan, chief operating officer of the Elmwood Park Zoo, said he’s observed an uptick in homeless people staying on zoo-owned land.
“It has cost us an abundant amount of time, energy and resources to ensure that we do not have people camping out or loitering on zoo property due to liability and safety issues for everyone,” Donovan said. “We are here to support a solution that will protect our property, our guests and our animals while ensuring treating the homeless with the dignity, care and respect that they deserve.”
Speakers differed on what responsibility the municipality has to care for the homeless.
“When the other municipalities bring homeless (people) into our municipality to be dropped off at a homeless shelter and they don’t stay, they’re now in our communities,” Fennell said. “They’re in our communities where my nephew is playing in the streets.”
“I don’t care if they came from Abington. They’re here now,” Hays said.
But Fennell said he understands where Lepera is coming from, and underscored the difficulty of having one place bear the weight of that responsibility.
“This isn’t me being against them,” he said. “I’m asking y’all, Tommy’s right, … council president’s right. Y’all need to put your money where your mouths are because my money is over there. I’m paying for all of y’all to live a good life. So you know that’s what he’s saying. You guys take on the responsibility, too.”
The need for more affordable housing in the county seat was a top issue for commenters, including Ana Santoyo, who proposed gathering graduates from the municipality’s leadership academy to participate in a committee tasked with helping tackle the problem.
“Housing for all is possible and we can achieve this by coming together, doing the research and developing the creative policies and practices needed to do this. It is possible,” she said.
“I think all in all it was a somewhat productive meeting,” Hays told MediaNews Group. “I feel like a lot of people had a chance to vent and that includes the council president, that includes a lot of people who spoke during public comment, and what I hope comes out of this is all of us pushing toward the same goals and pushing for more affordable housing, finding solutions for the homeless, and I think if everyone contributes, if everyone comes to the table, we could definitely get it done.”
But for Lepera, it means getting assistance from other local, county and state governments. He maintained it’s crucial to make progress on solving the homelessness crisis in the county seat.
“This issue is more than just affordable housing,” Lepera said. “The people that are in these encampments, some of them are severely mentally ill and they need help. Some of them are severely addicted to drugs and yes they need help, ok? But it cannot be Norristown alone.”
“It has to be everybody pulling together,” he continued. “I need all 62 townships, municipalities and boroughs. I need Montgomery County, which is the second richest county in the state, to pull together and pull their weight. Because we’re frustrated, we’re sure as hell broke, and we just need help.”