As Norristown closes parks from dusk to dawn, unhoused people fear arrest
Norristown council voted to close parks from dusk to dawn. Unhoused people fear they can’t sleep in parks, retribution from police.
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Julianna Okike spent a few months in the CHOC shelter, Montgomery County’s only 24/7 shelter for single adults in Norristown, before it closed its doors in June.
Okike, 38, then moved to the Missionary Sisters of Charity, a shelter that houses six single women at a time and limits each stay to three weeks. When Okike’s three weeks ended, she started sleeping in a Norristown park.
This week, Norristown Borough Council voted 6-1 to pass an ordinance that makes it illegal to stay in parks from dusk to dawn. The ordinance says it is intended “to prohibit overnight activities in Municipal parks and recreation areas and protect the public safety.”
Councilmember Rebecca Smith was the single vote of opposition on the council.
Since she heard the news, Okike has been thinking about her options — or lack thereof.
“Sometimes I do get worried about being outside. I might have to go somewhere else, I’m trying to find a place to go to,” Okike said. She’s looking for affordable housing in the area, with help from the folks at the Norristown Hospitality Center, but the search is challenging.
“It’s almost like… every man for himself kind of mentality. Or it makes you feel that way because you don’t know when the next time you’re going to get what you need,” Okike said.
Council Vice President Heather Lewis, who supports the ordinance, said she understands vulnerable populations, but has to “balance the needs of [her] constituents.”
The ordinance first appeared on the council’s agenda on Aug. 2. It arrived after CHOC closed its doors on June 30, amid a 118% rise in homelessness from 2021 to 2022 in Montgomery County and long waitlists for affordable housing across the Philly suburbs.
Housing advocates pushed back against the policy, saying it criminalizes homelessness, and ostracizes unhoused people.
Mike Kingsley, the shelter and outreach manager at the Norristown Hospitality Center, said unhoused folks who utilize the hospitality center fear getting arrested for sleeping in parks. Though Kingsley was assured by the Norristown police chief that police would not make arrests, people are wary.
“He’s assured me that he’s not going to go out and arrest people. He’s just going to have a conversation,” Kingsley said. “But the people here are like, ‘Oh, that’s not going to happen with officer so-and-so or officer so-and-so, they’re going to come out. They’re going to beat us up. They’re going to kick us out. Take our stuff.”
Kingsley was also upset and surprised the county did not give the community much time to respond to the ordinance.
“I guarantee you, not many people saw whatever advertisement they put out. I didn’t see any advertisement,” Kingsley said.
Kingsley agrees with the council members who say they want parks safer, but he asked, why not solve both issues simultaneously? “I want to be able to do that. But I also want a place for people to lay their heads, where they can feel safe,” Kingsley said.
Kingsley is worried that unhoused people might feel the need to hide now that they can’t safely sleep in the parks, and that could put their lives at greater risk.
Last Sunday night, an unhoused person, Rene Rudman, 61, died. He was sleeping at the old train station on Dekalb and Lafayette streets in Norristown. Kingsley said he had been looking for a hidden and relatively safe space to sleep.
“If he were in a shelter, he’d be alive,” Kingsley said. “If he were in a safe place, like an encampment, supervised encampment… Other people would notice, but having to hide on his own, away from everyone, I believe was a major factor in his death.”
According to Kinglsey, Rudman had just got into Your Way Home’s Rapid Rehousing program, “so within a couple of weeks, he may have had some place to stay.”
In response to community concerns, Lewis said, “We’re not going to wake people up out of their sleep and tell them to move… there has to be a pretty serious situation or scenario that would culminate all that… By no means is this a war on our homeless population. By no means is or have our police department had any negative engagement with working with our unhoused population.”
Kingsley and Lewis said they are planning a town hall meeting at the hospitality center with unhoused people and community members to talk about solutions. Lewis said she wants to see more social services spread out across the county.
“There are 66 municipalities in Montgomery County. So I would say Norristown’s responsibility is one 1/66,” Lewis said. “It is not a Norristown problem. It is a county-wide problem. It’s a national problem.”
Kingsley also spoke at the Montgomery County commissioners meeting on Thursday morning.
“I’m here to say, why aren’t you commissioners creating a shelter for these folks? Why did you let CHOC close down? You will all hear again from me, in your emails and your phones, I’m now going to get involved in your lives,” Kingsley said.
Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh told Kingsley it will take a county-wide effort.
“Many municipalities already have affordable housing in their municipalities but there are others that don’t and others that are talking to us about doing so right now,” she said.
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