Advocates say there’s ‘no place’ for unhoused people in Norristown, where it may soon be illegal to stay in parks past dusk

Tony Morano, 38 (left), and Anne Douglass, 60, set up tents along the bike path in Norristown. (Courtesy of Mark Boorse)

Tony Morano, 38 (left), and Anne Douglass, 60, set up tents along the bike path in Norristown. (Courtesy of Mark Boorse)

Each time Tony Morano and Anne Douglass find a new place to pitch their tents, they face the threat of being forced to pack up their homes — and leave.

Recently, they say, a borough officer told them to get out of Riverfront Park, in Norristown, Montgomery County. When they moved to a spot along the Norristown bike path in late July, a park ranger ordered them to vacate.

Without vehicles, each removal — which they say feels like an eviction —  means hauling their belongings by foot, and if they don’t, they risk getting their things thrown out.

Now, Norristown Borough, one of the poorest municipalities in Montgomery County, is considering a new “dawn-to-dusk” ordinance, which would make it officially illegal to sleep overnight in the borough’s parks. The ordinance comes during an affordable housing crisis in the county, and homelessness is 118% higher in Montgomery County than this time last year.

“I’m tired of us feeling like we’re at the bottom of the food chain, that we don’t exist and we don’t have feelings,” said Morano, who has been in Norristown for 10 years. He has a disability and has struggled to find stable, affordable housing. Douglass has lived in Norristown for two years with her daughter, who has a job in the area that she commutes to via public transportation.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“We’re important. We’re human,” Morano said. “But people just see us as a nuisance.”

Tony Morano, and his dog Queenie, outside their home in Norristown. Morano has lived in the area for 10 years. (Courtesy of Mark Boorse)

On Tuesday, Norristown municipal leaders voted 5-1 to advertise the ordinance to the public.

Council can pass it into law by majority vote no fewer than seven days, and no more than 60 days from the advertisement of the ordinance.

Under the proposed ordinance, a person found in a borough park at night would be guilty of a summary offense and liable to a fine of up to $300 or face imprisonment for up to five days.

Norristown Police Chief Derrick Wood said a citation would be “a last resort, but it would be something to hold over their head.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Wood said he “doesn’t want” those kinds of confrontations with unhoused people. In the past, he said, “usually we tell them to leave. They do leave and they basically go hide somewhere else, out of sight, out of mind, so to speak.”

It is already illegal to stay overnight in a park in every municipality bordering Norristown: East Norriton Township, Plymouth Township, Upper Merion Township, and in Bridgeport, where it’s also illegal to loiter, or remain “idle in essentially one location.” In West Norriton, breaking the ordinance can subject a person “to arrest and prosecution.”

Council President Thomas Lepera said the goal of the ordinance is to improve “quality of life” for Norristown residents, to reduce crime and drug use in parks, and to get unhoused people to services, “so that we can have a cleaner, nicer town.”

But advocates say these types of laws create more harm than good — especially in a place like Norristown where resources are already stretched thin.

“To say, ‘we’re referring people to services’ does not acknowledge the fact that the service system is way outstripped in this capacity,” said Mark Boorse, director of program development with Access Services

When asked about the lack of shelter in Norristown for unhoused people, Lepera said, “There’s 53 municipalities, townships, and boroughs in Montgomery County. Why does it have to be in Norristown?”

“There is no place to be…They’re going to be outside for the foreseeable future. That’s the reality in Montgomery County,” said Boorse.

And unhoused people tend to “stay close to their roots,” Boorse and other housing advocates said. Many people have been in Norristown long enough to have a network of support that they rely on, are connected to necessary services, and basic needs like transportation.

Neither Morano or Douglass, for example, plan on leaving Norristown because of the new ordinance.

The ordinance, says Boorse, is not a solution to homelessness in Norristown, nor will it get people to leave the area. So, he said, “really what they’re saying is, ‘we are perpetuating a system that makes people hide.’”

“I think it’s inhuman to do this, but however you feel about it, it’s not effective.”

‘There’s no place for you’

Housing advocates say the timing of this policy makes it particularly harsh.

“We’ve seen homelessness at record levels … we’ve never seen so much homelessness,” said Jessica Fenchel, vice president of adult behavioral health for Access Services, which does outreach to people without housing in several eastern Pennsylvania counties.

The number of unhoused people across Montgomery County has risen by at least 118% from 2021 to 2022, according to the county’s 2022 Point-in-Time (PIT) count. According to the PIT, as of January 2022, 568 individuals were sleeping in one of the county’s emergency shelters (including hotel rooms paid for with public funding), transitional housing projects, or outdoors.

Of the 568 unhoused people, about 200 are based in Norristown, according to Mike Kingsley, the shelter and outreach manager at the Norristown Hospitality Center.

On top of that, the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center — Montgomery County’s only 24/7 emergency housing service for single adults — closed on June 30. The organization tried to extend their lease to bid for more time to find a new home, but Norristown rejected the request. The land is set to be conveyed to Norristown.

Norristown is one of the poorest Municipalities in Montgomery County, rent is on the rise, and affordable housing is scarce across the suburbs. Many people in Norristown are on the brink of homelessness, Kingsley said. The Norristown Hospitality Center is “constantly” getting calls from families who say they are about to lose their apartment, he said.

“The timing of this is saying, even more … to people who are homeless: ‘There’s no place for you,’” Fenchel said.

In an opinion piece for the Times-Herald, Council President Lepera said unhoused people come into Norristown because of the number of social services in the municipality. He said municipalities need to start providing more services.

“You can’t put 20 social safety networks in the poorest town in Montgomery County, because you’re just further killing it,” Lepera said. “[We’ve been] knocking on the door [of the county] to spread these services out … Lansdale, Abington, Souderton … put the social safety networks in those areas, as well as Norristown.”

Housing advocates dispute Lepera’s claim, arguing that spreading social services to other areas in the county won’t mean that unhoused people will leave Norristown, since their ties to the area are strong.

Hakim Jones, a Norristown Council member who voted in support of advertising the ordinance, said he feels conflicted over the issue.

“I also know Norristown has a sense of urgency to please its homeowners, to please its residents,” Jones said. “And that’s kind of what we’re up against. And we plan to invest in the waterfront, and we plan to invest in our parks further.”

For Fenchel and Boorse, their question is: Once people are asked to leave a Norristown park, where can they go?

“They’re not actually allowed to be anywhere,” Boorse said.  And hiding in places such as the woods, which Boorse fears many unhoused people will do, can be dangerous.

“The policies of today are going to result in the tragedies of January, February,” said Fenchel, who pointed to places like Los Angeles, where unhoused people have been pushed to live in the Mojave desert. And when we see in the news people dying outside because they don’t have an opportunity to be safe enough, they’ll come back and they’ll say, ‘who failed?’”

A need for the ‘collective will’

Boorse says there needs to be more collaboration between the state, county, and municipalities to find a sustainable solution. A designated legal place for an encampment is a start.

Kingsley, of the Norristown Hospitality Center, would like the municipality to have a “low-barrier” shelter, which would focus on harm reduction and remove things like sobriety and identification as a requirement.

“I believe that the only thing that will solve this is collective will to say, ‘it has to happen, and we have to, and we also have to do it together.’ So, arguing about who’s responsible for it diminishes our capacity to be collaborative and collectively get the job done,” Kingsley said.

Fenchel added, communities that want to see revitalization and economic development, like Norristown, are successful when they want to “bring everybody along,” including the most vulnerable populations.

As the ordinance in Norristown looms, Boorse said advocates and unhoused community members are ready to push back.

“People who are experiencing homelessness are tired of trying to hide that fact,” Boorse said. “The next step is, we’re going to support them here in this space that’s visible. And then if there’s a response that escalates that, then I think we will have to figure out what we would do to respond to that.”

___

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct details about the approval process for the ordinance.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal