One stop in Norristown brings a chance to connect to food, job contacts, and other aid

The food distribution station came prepared to donate as much as possible

The food distribution station came prepared to donate as much as possible. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

The remnants of Hurricane Ida brought damaging floods to the Riverside Apartments in Norristown. So now, Janet Evans is stranded in her own community.

Her depression is kicking in, she says, and she’s trying to take it one day at a time — which is why she ventured to a parking lot at the corner of Dekalb and Airy streets on a sunny Saturday morning.

“I’m looking for help. I need help to find a place. I’m trying to find something, but there’s nothing available. I guess because after the flood, everybody’s doing the same thing, looking for somewhere to go. And there’s nowhere to go,” Evans said.

In that parking lot on Saturday, the job and resource fair organized by the Montgomery County Office of the Public Defender had a dual purpose: It was a free food distribution hub for the day for anyone, without questions about need, and there were opportunities for the many who gathered with resumes in hand to talk with local businesses and organizations about job opportunities.

It was also a place where people like Evans could connect with the county and local partners for help with rental assistance, homelessness, and even access to counseling.

Stranded in her own community, Janet Evans is looking for any help she can get
Stranded in her own community, Janet Evans is looking for any help she can get. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

The county tends to broadcast the assistance that it’s offering online and on its various social media channels.

“But most of the people that are in need of a lot of these different types of services or our Health and Human Services Department, whether it’s flood relief or emergency communications, those types of things, are not necessarily on our channels. So we want to make sure that we’re meeting them where they are, which is out and about in their neighborhoods,” said Teresa Harris, public affairs manager for the county’s Board of Commissioners.

From Best Buy and the Elmwood Park Zoo, to the office of U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean and Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania, dozens of participants erected booths where people could approach and have conversations with prospective employers and organizations offering assistance and mental health, housing, and addiction resources.

“We were coming out anyway, because this is a great opportunity to connect with constituents and to connect constituents to opportunities and to resources and to information,” Dean said.

Though there is always a need for such services, the damage wrought by the remnants of Ida only further illustrated the benefits of an event like a job and resource fair.

Dean has traveled her congressional district to see Ida’s aftermath up close.

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean has seen the damage caused by the recent storms with her own eyes
U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean has seen the damage caused by the recent storms with her own eyes. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“Some people have lost houses. Some people have lost contents. Sadly, four people, four of my constituents, lost their lives. So what people want is to know that there are people there to help and that there are resources. We fought very hard alongside the governor to make sure we got FEMA authorization for resources and help,” Dean said.

The Public Defender’s Office hopes events like this can fill a void for communities that need additional support.

“What we seek to provide is a community resource fair based on the needs at the time, as expressed by community members. So right now, Norristown and the surrounding areas were profoundly hit by Ida as it came through, and we’ve been fortunate enough to receive FEMA funding,” said Alana Hook, chief of social services for the Public Defender’s Office.

The aim was to address every need imaginable, such as providing expungement opportunities for those who were eligible.

“A criminal record can really hold people back from job opportunities, housing opportunities, and educational opportunities. So it’s very important that those who are eligible to have their criminal records expunged have the ability to do that,” said Greg Nester, co-chief public defender.

Cathy Fortune (L), cheif clerk at the Public Defender's Office and Greg Nester (R), the county's co-chief Public Defender, helped unpackage the food
Cathy Fortune (L), chief clerk at the Public Defender’s Office and Greg Nester (R), the county’s co-chief Public Defender, helped unpackage the food. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

The all-encompassing affair was pulled together with the help of regional partners like the Greater Norristown Branch of the NAACP, the YWCA, the Montgomery County OIC, Philabundance, and Unincarcerated Minds.

“This is impossible without them, all those groups have a strong voice in the well-being of our community and in criminal justice reform. So there are natural partners to work with for us,” Nester said.

Another job and resource fair is scheduled for next Saturday, Sept. 25, in Pottstown. A similar event was held last year, and the public defenders decided a repeat was in order as they hope to make it an annual occurrence. According to Nester, the crowd at last year’s fair was enormous and hard to count — they distributed more than seven tons of food in just one day.

This year, the office came prepared for the masses. There was more than enough shelf-stable food on standby, thanks to Unincarcerated Minds. The local nonprofit, composed mostly of formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones, brought 5,000 pounds of food.

Ralph Mitchell, a member of the group, comes from Norristown. He said this act of community service means a lot to him.

Ralph Mitchell's message — people can always change for the better
Ralph Mitchell’s message — people can always change for the better. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“The main thing I like to do is come back to my community and do the best thing I can for my community. I grew up kind of OK, but I’m different. And I just want to make sure that our community is taken care of properly,” Mitchell said.

Saturday was a team effort, and the public defenders are always looking to add to their roster of partner organizations.

“We are seeking to make sure that everybody is connected to what they need at this moment. And we’re going to continue to expand our efforts every year, little by little, based upon what we see is going on in the county,” Hook said.

With criminal justice reform having a moment in public discourse, the public defenders also hope to seize that moment through events such as these, to make an impact.

“Our office believes in a holistic representation of the individual. And it’s our vision with the office that we focus really on three things,” Nester said.

The first is obviously providing good legal representation for their clients. The second is making sure their clients have the tools they need to succeed after they leave the criminal justice system.

The last is simple and very relevant to Saturday’s event: providing people with opportunities and resources, so that they don’t end up in the criminal justice system in the first place.

For those that do, the Montgomery County OIC and Unincarcerated Minds are co-hosting an expungement clinic Sept. 25 with the secretary of the state’s Board of Pardons, Brandon Flood, at the OIC’s Norristown headquarters.

Saturday’s event started rather slowly, but as people started to take notice of what was being offered in the parking lot, the numbers grew as the hours passed.

Some of that was because of Seanah Gary, who moved to Norristown from Philadelphia. She didn’t know about the event until she passed by while walking her dog. Curious, she took the dog home and came back for another look.

Then she called her friend over, Raphael Gladden, who’s originally from North Philly.

Seanah Gary (L) and Raphael Gladden (R) visited every table at Saturday's fair
Seanah Gary (L) and Raphael Gladden (R) visited every table at Saturday’s fair. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“I moved up here in ’94 to get a better way for my family to live, found a niche, and I’ve been here ever since,” Gladden said.

Now, Gladden said, he’s looking for any and every job opportunity available to him.

Meanwhile, Gary said she likes doing hair and wants to go to cosmetology school, but she is also willing to learn new skills — and help her neighbors.

“I just want everybody to help each other out, and I think everybody should be a part of the community and try to make everybody better,” Gary said.

Charles Delaney, of West Norriton, works as a social worker. Wife Audrey Delaney is a special education teacher. They came to the job and resource fair to see what was going on in their community.

“Plus, quite frankly, we’re also in need. So we want to see what resources are available,” Charles said.

Charles Delaney (L) and Audrey Delaney (R) were both happy to see all of the resources being offered to the community
Charles Delaney (L) and Audrey Delaney (R) were both happy to see all of the resources being offered to the community. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

He was able to exchange business cards and interact with people regarding social services.

“I think that it’s awesome that these agencies are going to reach out to people,” he said.

After the food distribution booth, one of the most visited tables was operated by the Norristown Hospitality Center, a neighborhood day shelter that offers breakfast five days a week, showers, mail contracts, social services, locker storage, and even travel assistance to job interviews.

“We also are there to support and encourage people and what they need. We’re offering right now the Arize Program. It’s a back-to-work program. It’s going to be Oct. 4th through the 8th from 9 to 3 at the Hospitality Center. This is a course that’s basically brushing up on skills like resume writing and interviewing skills, so that people can get back in the workforce,” said Heather Mingle, the center’s workforce development coordinator.

Sidney Williams cooks the breakfast for the Hospitality Center, and he also throws a barbecue every summer for those experiencing homelessness.

“We have a lot of people that contribute and to help make it grow bigger and bigger each year,” Williams said.

Heather Mingle (L) and Sidney Williams (R) are both passionate about the projects that the Norristown Hospitality Center is undertaking
Heather Mingle (L) and Sidney Williams (R) are both passionate about the projects that the Norristown Hospitality Center is undertaking. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

However, he said that the organization is always looking for more help and resources to support its clientele. The group is hosting its eighth annual Sole Harvest 5K and 1 Mile Walk for those experiencing poverty at 9 a.m., Oct. 9 at Norristown Farm Park.

Another busy booth Saturday belonged to Norristown’s NAACP branch, getting people registered to vote.

Angelique Hinton, the branch president, said she’s noticed that the community often gets the short end of the stick after disasters. She was there to make sure that didn’t happen.

Angelique Hinton is paying close attention to the racial disparities following the pandemic and even the recent natural disasters
Angelique Hinton is paying close attention to the racial disparities following the pandemic and even the recent natural disasters. (Kenny Cooper/WHYY)

“Communities like Norristown don’t necessarily have the resources or the support that they really need to kind of get back on their feet. And so, that’s something that we encounter working with communities of color, in particular. So really trying to partner with the county and the federal government to make sure that those resources are there,” Hinton said.

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