On Wednesday evening, some Montgomery County residents swapped their warm homes for the bitter cold.
Residents pitched tents and slept on the steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse to make homelessness in the area more visible, and push for solutions.
Mike Kingsley, shelter and outreach coordinator for the Norristown Hospitality Center, said unhoused people are pushed to hide in the woods, away from the public eye — especially since Norristown made it illegal to sleep in parks overnight.
“And then it’s not as visible as it is in other places,” Kingsley said. “We need people to see that… there is homelessness, and to do something about it.”
The gathering, coordinated by the Hospitality Center, was centered around listening to unhoused or previously unhoused peoples’ stories.
Sondra Huzzy said she has been looking for housing for over six months after her landlord sold her home of four years. Since she was evicted, Huzzy, 64, was diagnosed with liver cancer and is relying solely on a Social Security check. She can’t find an affordable apartment.
Huzzy stood at a podium in front of a crowd of about 30 people. She held a large envelope containing all her low-income housing applications.
“I applied everywhere. I have envelopes full. I’m told everywhere I go, ‘Oh, we’ll put you on a waiting list,’” said Huzzy, who has been bouncing between her car and family members’ couches.
“Not only am I on that waitlist, but I am on the waitlist for a liver transplant, which is due in February. And if I don’t find housing between now and then, I’ll be denied a liver.”
Huzzy said there simply needs to be more affordable and low-income housing: “They’re taking school buildings and turning them into lofts. They’re taking apartment complexes and they’re turning them into high rise places.”
According to a June 2022 report, the number of unhoused people in Montgomery County is 118% higher this year than it was last year. Kingsley says there are upwards of 450 unhoused people in Norristown alone — the Hospitality Center serves between 100 and 200 people a day.
Folks are worried about this weekend, which is likely to be cold enough for Code Blue warnings. According to Kingsley, there are only two Norristown shelters with available beds this weekend — the Salvation Army has a few beds for single women and Sisters of Charity has six beds for women.
“We’ve got kids out there that don’t have a place to sleep,” Kingsley said.
Margaret Whigham, a Norristown resident of 27 years, left her home with a sleeping bag to join the group in solidarity. She said homelessness in the area is visible; “it’s just that people are not stopping to talk to the people that are asking for help.”
Montgomery County Commissioner Kevin Lawrence stopped by and shared words with the crowd.
“Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing to say that we’re the third largest county, we’re the second wealthiest county, but 400 people are going to sleep on the streets tonight because they don’t have an affordable option, a roof over their head,” Lawrence said.
The county has faced some criticism from municipal leaders for not finding solutions. Lawrence said every municipality has to step in and offer shelter and provide affordable housing.
“We don’t do zoning, we don’t approve projects,” Lawrence said. “There’s 62 municipalities in Montgomery County. This is not a Norristown problem. This is not a Pottstown problem. This is all of our problems. These are our neighbors.”
Developers need to include an affordable component in their plans if they want “county dollars,” Lawrence said.
Advocates hope a shelter coming to Pottstown can serve as a model for shelters in other Montgomery County municipalities. The shelter is non-congregate — each participant will have their own room, so they can store their belongings and lock up when they leave.
Elijah Williams, 39, of Norristown, was eager to show support for the Hospitality Center. The organization helped him find a job and a new home when he was unhoused for three months.
His original residence was in North Jersey, but he was arrested and placed in Montgomery County jail. While in jail, he “lost everything.”
When Williams was released in June, he couldn’t go home to his network of resources; probation laws prohibited him from crossing state lines.
“So I had to make my choice — is it this bench or is it being a fugitive? And I chose the bench,” Williams said. “And luckily it worked out, thankfully, because the way the weather is right now, I don’t know if my decision would have been the same, with these frigid temperatures.”
He has a place in Norristown now and hopes to become a homeowner eventually. “But right now, baby steps. I’m happy that I’m actually moving in the right direction,” Williams said.
Sandra Bricker, 41, was staying in a tent with her partner. They both are currently unhoused and have been sleeping outside for about six months.
Each morning, they have to figure out where to sleep.
“Our toes are cold,” Bricker said. She’s asking her Norristown neighbors for some “common courtesy” and respect. The couple often has to carry all their belongings on their backs, without having a safe storage place. Police officers regularly order them to move, she said. They are in constant motion.
“So you just have to do one day at a time,” she said. “We literally wake up and go, ‘OK, we slept here tonight, where are we sleeping tonight? Where are we sleeping tonight?”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misspelled Sondra Huzzy’s name.
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