Times Chronicle & Public Spirit
Homelessness is ‘community level crisis’
Housing official: More than 600 people are sleeping outdoors
NORRISTOWN >> Issues surrounding local hunger and homelessness are being amplified in Montgomery County as the winter approaches.
National Hunger and Homelessness Week was recognized Nov. 12 to Nov. 20, as nonprofit representatives gathered during the Nov. 17 Montgomery County Commissioners meeting to raise awareness of some of the most vulnerable residents living outside and dealing with food insecurity.
Nationwide, there are 580,000 people homeless on a typical night, according to Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week’s informational website. Additionally, 37.2 million
people in the U.S. live below the poverty line, a statistic that includes one in six children.
Seven percent of Montgomery County’s 856,000 residents struggle with hunger, according to Amanda Musselman, executive director of the MontCo Anti-Hunger Network. The agency oversees resources for 60 food pantries throughout Montgomery County.
“Every day tough decisions are being made,” she said. “It’s usually a choice between food and other critical needs like medicine, housing, child care and transportation costs.”
More than 600 people are sleeping outdoors and in need of housing, according to Kayleigh Silver, administrator of the Montgomery County Office of Housing and Community Development. The Montgomery County Office of Health of Human Services is currently seeking donations of gifts, gift cards and winter coats. More information can be found on the department’s website at www.montcopa.org/hhsdonations.
Advocates have often cited rising costs of living, inflation, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and damage incurred from Hurricane Ida as reasons for the trying financial climate faced by county residents. Musselman said she has seen this first hand.
“While the impacts of inflation are being experienced widespread, the burden has hit our lower income families the hardest, and that’s leaving a 75 percent increase of sustained need across our network at the emergency food pantries that MAHN services,” she said.
“This is being coupled with a decrease in community donations both monetary and in physical food and most of our network is in need of additional food resources to serve the increased need they are continuing to see,” she said.
Effect of shelter closing
Locally, instances of homelessness have escalated after the recent closure of the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center in Norristown. The 50-bed facility, previously located on the grounds of the Norristown State Hospital, had served as the largest and only homeless shelter for single adults in Montgomery County.
Mark Boorse, Access Services’ director of program development, said the local Street Outreach team has seen a serious uptick in homelessness.
“Across the county, there are close to four times the number of people sleeping outside than there were before Covid,” he said noting that 74 families were homeless as of Nov. 16, which is “up from 15 families two years ago.” Another 86 homeless individuals were ages 55 years and older.
“It is clear that there is much work to do and we can no longer assume or hope that the service system alone will find the answer,” Boorse said. “This is a community level crisis that will take each of us and all of us to overcome.”
A job loss away
County Commissioners’ Chairwoman Val Arkoosh agreed.
“Any one of us is one job loss, one domestic incident, one hurricane away from experiencing homelessness, and this could be any of us anytime, and it really will take our community to pull together to solve this problem once and for all,” Arkoosh said.
Commissioners’ Vice Chairman Ken Lawrence Jr. thanked the advocates for “seeing” the problem.
“I’ve often said that this is an invisible issue. That people don’t see it, they don’t want to hear it’s out there,” he said. “So thank you for bringing visibility to this, but thank you for seeing the people that need the help each and every day.”
Montgomery County is the second wealthiest county in Pennsylvania, Lawrence said, with a median income of $93,518, according to 2020 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet homelessness still occurs.
“Homelessness is in
every single community in the county,” Boorse said. “It’s in every single Walmart parking lot, but it’s hidden, sometimes out of the way, sometimes in plain sight. So we have to look, we have to get proximate.”
Arkoosh and Lawrence stressed the ittakes-a-village mentality when it comes to tackling this issue. Lawrence noted “when we say it’s a countywide problem, we don’t mean that county
government has all the solutions for it.” Arkoosh agreed. “This is a problem that affects all of us and it requires all of us both personally and across our 62 municipalities to share in the solutions,” Arkoosh said. “As we’ve said many times, if every one of our municipalities just ensured that a small number of affordable units were available in their municipality, this problem could largely be solved.”