Amid an affordable housing crisis in Montgomery County and the impending closure of the county’s only 24/7 shelter, another shelter is closing, this one in Pottstown.
In the fall, Al’s Heart Warming Center, run by the community social support organization Pottstown LIFT, was denied a yearlong extension of Pottstown Borough Council approval to operate. That will force the shelter to close its doors on May 1.
The Warming Center is the only shelter in the Pottstown area for single adults. Established in 2020, it has been open six months of the year during winter seasons, and has 36 beds for men and women. Since Nov. 1, 2021, it has filled beds 3,418 times, according to Tom Niarhos, the shelter’s director.
Currently, there is no zoning policy for homeless shelters in Pottstown, according to Niarhos, which is why the Warming Center had to request “special relief” from the borough to be able to open its doors initially.
Since February 2021, the shelter has been facing complaints from the borough, and, according to Niarhos, would respond to those complaints with “viable solutions.” The shelter attempted to coordinate with the borough to try to create a new zoning policy for shelters, said Niarhos, but Pottstown officials suddenly changed gears in October and denied its request for special relief for the third year of operation.
Niarhos said he’s left with questions.
“To be honest with you, I don’t know [why]. I wish I had an answer,” he said. “There hasn’t been any specific reason to not allow us to continue.”
Pottstown officials did not respond to multiple requests from WHYY News for comment.
The Warming Center’s closure comes as the county’s only 24/7 shelter, the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center in Norristown (CHOC), is struggling to find a new home. CHOC is currently at capacity, and there are always people waiting to get in year-round, according to its director, Christina Jordan.
The county’s affordable housing crisis has been exacerbated by the destruction caused by the remnants of Hurricane Ida last year, the COVID-19 pandemic, and rising rental costs, especially in more low-income towns such as Norristown, Pottstown, and Lansdale. According to the county’s Homes for All report, nearly 50% of renters in Montgomery County are rent-burdened, paying over 30% of their monthly income on housing costs.
According to the county, from 2017 to 2021 rents in Pottstown rose by 21.66%. Pottstown Borough also has the highest unemployment rate, 4.2% as of December 2021.
The Warming Center is regularly at capacity, about 65% to 75% of the time, according to Niarhos. It is often forced to turn people away.
When the shelter closes in April, Niarhos predicted, most of the people it serves will end up on the street in Pottstown, in tents and sleeping bags.
“When you have nothing and you have nowhere to go, it’s really difficult to convince yourself to leave and go somewhere else,” said Niarhos.
The shelter serves only Pottstown residents, after the borough expressed worry about it attracting individuals who are experiencing homelessness from other areas.
That sentiment, often referred to as “NIMBY-ism (for “Not In My Backyard”), runs rampant across Montgomery County, and is also one of the biggest roadblocks to finding a new space for CHOC, said Owen Camuso, regional director of the nonprofit Resources for Human Development.
Paul Prince, the shelter’s attorney and a member of Pottstown Lift’s board of directors, said the Pottstown-residents-only policy had been needed to keep the doors open.
“It was necessary to convince the borough to continue our existence the second year,” said Prince. “The borough was very concerned.”
But both Prince and Niarhos said the shelter has community support. It conducted a survey of local businesses, and collected around 30 signatures of support, according to Niarhos. Three businesses would not sign, and out of those three, one vocally expressed being against the shelter. Niarhos said they also collected 250 signatures from local residents in favor of the shelter.
After discussions with the borough, both Prince and Niarhos are under the impression that council members just don’t want a shelter in Pottstown.
“We have bent over backwards to try and address all of the concerns that have been raised over the two years,” said Prince. “The issue seems to be our existence at all.”
Said Niarhos, “I’ve been in multiple meetings with people from borough council. The answer is just, ‘We’re not going to allow a homeless shelter in Pottstown.’ “I don’t know what they’re standing on or how they’re comfortable with that, but that’s what it is.”
‘We are not going to slink away’
Pottstown Lift isn’t giving up, though. It proposes a brand new shelter in Pottstown, with Prince set to make a presentation at the Borough Council’s 7 p.m. meeting Wednesday in an attempt to garner support.
“We are not going to slink away quietly in the night. We’re imbued with the necessity of our mission and the righteousness of our mission,” said Prince. “If we don’t look out for each other, who will look out for us?”
After local resident Paul Desch offered to donate a building on North Charlotte Street, the shelter decided to apply for a different “special exception” from the borough. It is pitching the new shelter as an “adult day care center.”
“We determined that the borough definition, in my opinion, for an adult day care center was broad enough that we would meet the requirements of that ordinance section for a special exception,” said Prince.
The new shelter would bring more opportunities to assist people experiencing homelessness.
Niarhos hopes to host 40 beds, in non-congregate settings, and to be open 24/7, 365 days a year. He said he also plans to coordinate with local social services, to bring their programs into the building during the day.
Kayleigh Silver of Your Way Home, a program that works in collaboration with the county, said county officials are in full support of the proposed new 24/7 shelter.
“We are extremely excited and supportive of the initiative for more services for people experiencing housing instability and homelessness,” said Silver.
But she said the new shelter would not fill what will be a major gap in the county once CHOC closes — though it would “absolutely help decrease a bit of that burden on one facility.”
Even if CHOC weren’t closing, said Silver, “We still need Pottstown Lift,” calling it a “both/and approach.” The new shelter aligns with the county’s broader goal of building more shelters across Montco.
“No matter where homelessness exists, solving it is what’s important,” said Silver. “And so we need multiple agencies and communities to step up to focus on the problem and what we can do to help, not debate whose problem it is. We need to work together to solve it.”
The Borough Council will vote on where it stands on the issue on March 14, and then Prince will pitch to the borough’s zoning board committee on March 15.
According to Prince, about 30 community members are planning to speak during the March 15 meeting, to help convince the zoning board of the need for the new shelter.
“I’m praying that they approve it,” said Niarhos. “But preparing and expecting them to deny.”
Niarhos said if the zoning board denies the shelter’s request, they are planning on appealing to the Montgomery County court.
But that would be a lengthy, and costly court process, and it would take away from the people in need, said Niarhos.
Prince doesn’t want a lawsuit either.
“I hope it never goes there,” said Prince. “That would be a shame for everybody, for the borough, and for Al’s Heart, for the homeless, for everyone. That would just be a terrible humanitarian loss. And it would reflect poorly on the borough.”