Updated: Mar 29
When you think of basic needs, what comes to mind? Food, clean water, safety, perhaps a sense of love and belonging? But for individuals experiencing homelessness in Montgomery County, a meal is a bonus, shelter a dream, and a sense of belonging in the community is yet to be decided.
Homelessness in Montgomery County has more than doubled in the last two years—a clear sign that something isn’t working. Rather than pushing the problem away, we invite our community to propose solutions that would benefit all of us. To start, let’s examine some factors that contribute to the problem we face today:
Lack of Short-Term Shelter
We saw a sudden rise of individuals experiencing homelessness in July of 2022, when our county’s only homeless shelter for adults closed its doors without a plan to re-open. Typically, this shelter had housed 50 at a time, providing people with stability for 60-90 days to gain employment and transition to longer-term housing. While there’s funding for a shelter, community members can’t agree on where to place it. This is due mostly to NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) thinking—people want to keep their distance from what they consider to be undesirable developments. While small amounts of short term shelter space exist for women experiencing domestic violence and for families, adults are typically left to find a tent and sleep outside. Police departments and townships have seen an increase in encampments or tent communities throughout the county (Rizzo, 2022).
Fears of Shelter
Our Boots-on-The-Ground work within CAARSEA has allowed us to speak directly with individuals experiencing homelessness and to learn about the barriers they face. Typically, a small number of cots are available during code blue emergencies when the wind chill drops below 20; individuals may stay from 8pm to 8am in a county-assigned building. Unfortunately, they can’t bring many belongings or pets. They may risk their belongings being stolen or forfeiting their spot in the tent community. Additionally, some have experienced assault and theft when the shelter environment is not adequately monitored. People have to weigh the risks of facing the cold versus the risks of spending the night in the shelter.
While many homeless individuals work during the day or find daytime shelter in local businesses, in the evening they rely on open spaces such as parks or bike paths where they won’t be seen. Unfortunately, in August of 2022, shortly after the shelter closed, the Norristown Borough passed an ordinance that closed the parks from dusk to dawn. Anyone found sleeping in parks would be forced to move, facing the prospect of their belongings being thrown out and receiving a $300 fine and up to 5 days of jail time. The ordinance limits the geographical areas where homeless individuals may legally exist. Supposedly, the purpose of the ordinance was to connect people with longer-term housing options. However, these options are spread thin, and critics of the ordinance say it does little to encourage people to seek services. Says Mark Boorse, Director of Program Development for Access Services, “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”.
According to local elected officials, the county is required to provide funds to alleviate homelessness in these towns, and they simply have not. We have seen the issue become stalled when townships push homelessness to the next town and politicians, in an effort to remain in good standing with their constituents, do not go against this. This has placed the primary burden to fall on Pottstown and Norristown. We know that Norristown has been communicative with the County over the past five years that it is in need of more support from the county and other townships to alleviate homelessness. However, the neighboring townships and the county have done little to support them (Rizzo, 2022).
Hurricane Ida, which hit our area in September 2021, caused flooding and damage to the riverfront neighborhoods of Norristown and Bridgeport, devastating 146 lower income housing units and displacing over 251 individuals. More than a year later, 25 people are still residing long term in hotels paid for by the county, while 36 live outside. As of February 2023, these housing options have not yet been replaced (Ravina, 2022).
Increased rental and high Income-To-Rent Ratio
The rising cost of rentals has led to fewer affordable options. Housing in Montgomery County is significantly more expensive compared to the rest of the state, with a typical 2 bedroom rental unit being from $925 to over $3,600 a month. Those living consistently in rentals have over the past two years faced an increase in their monthly rate. One-fourth of renters in Montgomery County report spending over 50% of their income on housing—a ratio that’s not sustainable and that’s considered a predictor of homelessness (Ravina, 2023).
Decreasing Supply of Low-Income Housing Options
Low-income housing can be a great stepping stone. Unfortunately, few options are available: https://montcopa.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/2978da13104140eb8cf4b09e112c78c7 As you can see, Conshohocken has two facilities, Whitemarsh has one (set aside for seniors), and Plymouth and surrounding townships such as East Norriton, Whitpain, Worcester, Lower Providence have none. Time on waitlists for this type of housing can range from several months to several years.
Ending of Eviction Moratorium
Many who had stable employment and a consistent income were suddenly without a job when the pandemic hit. To reduce sudden evictions, an eviction moratorium was passed as part of the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) in March of 2020. This gave individuals up to 120 days extra time to pay their rent without risking eviction. Many states have passed similar acts since this ended, acts such as the Emergency Rental Assistance Plan (ERAP) in Pennsylvania, which provides cash assistance for past-due rent, upcoming rent, or utility costs. This funding enables individuals and families to remain longer in a residence so there’s no disruption to employment and schooling. A study conducted in the Chicago area reveals the benefits of cash assistance programs—it costs $10,300 per person to avoid eviction vs. $20,548 per person who experiences homelessness as a result of eviction (Via Your Way Home Assessment Report).
Racism and Social Inequity
Homelessness is an issue of equity. While People of Color account for just 20% of the general population in Montgomery County, they make up 59% of people experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, Black children ages 0-17 represent almost a quarter of those experiencing homelessness, according to research completed by Your Way Home, a county agency that seeks to ensure everyone has equal opportunity to live in affordable housing and in a thriving community. YWH’s Eviction Prevention and Intervention Coalition pilot initiative data shows that Black individuals pay 15% higher rent and earn 8% less income than their White counterparts, suggesting a potential barrier for Black individuals and families as they strive to avoid or exit homelessness. We also see at play the decades-long issue of housing segregation—research shows that White families receiving rental assistance are spread throughout the county, while black households are grouped primarily in Norristown and Pottstown—the two towns accounting for 60% of the evictions in Montgomery County (Via Your Way Home Assessment Report).
With these recent and sudden impacts, we see that housing instability can be easy to fall into and difficult to recover from. Townships benefit in many ways from applying resources to alleviating housing insecurity. It would lessen the burden on strained county systems such as health centers, emergency rooms, and mental health support. Keeping people in their homes also means less disruption for employment and school.
Having a stable place to live, be warm, feel safe, take care of hygiene, and store belongings is both an emotional and a physical need. For all humans, these basic needs need to be met before other stability efforts can begin. Logistically, it’s next to impossible for people to gain employment, financial independence, and stability if they’re unable to change clothes, get a shower, sleep comfortably, and survive freezing temperatures. Things like applying for a job, attending training, getting a driver’s license, and building up income take time. These tedious tasks are far more manageable if one has a stable home to return to.
We need both short- and long-term action to address housing inequity in our county. Let’s determine to not ignore the problem. Or push it to the next town. Or villainize the homeless. Instead, let’s seek to identify solutions that improve stability for our neighbors so they can gain the opportunity to live productive, even thriving, Iives.
Please join us as we work toward finding sensible, compassionate solutions to this challenge.
Ravina, Rachel. “'It's Going to Be My Priority': Lawrence Takes up Homelessness in Montgomery County.” Thereporteronline, Thereporteronline, 4 Feb. 2023, https://www.thereporteronline.com/2023/02/06/its-going-to-be-my-priority-lawrence-takes-up-homelessness-in-montgomery-county/.
Rizzo, Emily. “Montco's Only 24/7 Shelter for Single Adults Struggles with Its Own Housing Crisis.” WHYY, WHYY, 30 Jan. 2022, https://whyy.org/articles/montcos-only-24-7-shelter-for-single-adults-struggles-with-a-housing-crisis-of-its-own/.
Rizzo, E. (2022, August 7). Advocates say there's 'no place' for unhoused people in Norristown, where it may soon be illegal to stay in parks past dusk. WHYY. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from https://whyy.org/articles/norristown-pa-unhoused-people-dawn-to-dusk-park-ordinance/
YWH Assessment Report - static1.squarespace.com. (n.d.). Retrieved March 26, 2023, from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59e4bd08d7bdce1e8a5b15bb/t/6203d52082b05337b5ad2cb6/1644418337294/just+strategies+-+ywh+coordinated+entry+final+report.pdf