Lower Providence residents have mixed feelings on ‘supportive short term housing’ – The Reporter

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EAGLEVILLE — An advertisement for a proposed text amendment to update Lower Providence Township’s zoning ordinance was unanimously authorized by elected officials last month.

The move could lay the groundwork for Philadelphia-based Resources for Human Development to build a new facility to help the homeless in Montgomery County.

“Supportive housing is in fact a legitimate land use that every township and borough and city must provide for. It is an important land use because of the human element, the human nature, the need for housing, the need to help people move forward in life,” said attorney Marc Jonas, who’s representing Resources for Human Development.

A presentation outlining plans for Genny’s Place, a “supportive short term housing” space in Eagleville to accommodate up to 60 individuals was discussed during a Jan. 18 Lower Providence Township Board of Supervisors meeting. RHD regional director Owen Camuso underscored the facility would not be categorized as a homeless shelter.

Camuso and Genny’s Place program director Christina Jordan introduced the concept, which was suggested for the Eagleville Hospital property, 100 Eagleville Road. Eagleville Hospital is an addiction recovery site with 347 beds and is managed as an independent nonprofit facility.

At least two dozen people were in the audience listening to the evening’s presentation. The idea was met with mixed reactions from area residents as Lower Providence Township Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dr. Janine Darby implored people to exercise decorum.

“We’re all in this together, township residents, so as you approach the mic here, please be kind and respectful of all of us,” Darby said.

Some were for the venture and others opposed it.

“We support how RHD values the dignity of each individual they encounter as they help them transition out of homelessness permanently,” said Lower Providence Presbyterian Church Rev. Ted Mingle. “Their presence is clearly vital to helping the people in our community who are struggling to get off the streets and achieve a better quality of life.”

“Lower Providence can’t meet those housing needs. The township has nowhere else to build without drastically changing current zoning laws,” said Rebecca Catagnus.

Several people expressed frustrations with elected officials, asserting they didn’t get enough notice.

“You guys need to do a better job of letting people know about this,” said Anthony Furst, of Lower Providence Township.

“Residents should have more of a warning for the next meeting,” Catagnus said.

Darby maintained that township officials did notify constituents about the proposal and stressed this was simply an introductory presentation.

“Tonight we’re not voting on anything in particular to allow RHD to come here,” Darby said. “We are just going to be talking about advertising the text amendment, and that will be advertised — and also shared with the community as well — because we have certain conditions and we’re hearing from the community now that we could change a few things.”

From CHOC to Genny’s Place

The Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center was located inside building nine on the grounds of the Norristown State Hospital at 1001 W. Sterigere St. in Norristown. (Photo by Cheryl Rodgers – MediaNews Group)

The housing model would provide shelter in apartment-like settings with support services geared to getting residents able to live on their own in regular housing. The move would be the first brick and mortar facility built since the closure of the nonprofit’s Coordinated Homeless Outreach Services, otherwise known as CHOC.

“They’re the only year round short term housing resource in Montgomery County for single adults,” Mingle said. “Without their services, more Montgomery County residents would be sleeping on the streets.”

The building was positioned on a portion of state land conveyed to the Municipality of Norristown, and RHD was one of several social service agencies in need of a new place when leases lapsed on June 30, 2022.

“I believe the facility they had on the state grounds, they had five years to find a new place and they never found a new lease within five years so that sounds a lot like mismanagement to me,” Catagnus said.

As a bookkeeper for Laurel House, a nonprofit focusing on assisting those impacted by domestic violence, resident Diane Helm refuted Catagnus’ claim.

“Also from a personal standpoint … we’ve had people say the exact same thing. Took us over five years to find a new ‘safe haven’ center. People called it a shelter. It’s not just a shelter,” Helm said. “These are comprehensive programs that help everybody who walks in the door, help them achieve their goals and become an even better citizen. So I really hope this will eventually go forward.”

A place to build had initially been explored on Trooper Road, but plans later stalled. Camuso noted community criticism focused on traffic and safety.

“We took the feedback from the community and looked for a better place,” Camuso said.

Solicitor Lauren Gallagher added that “it never got this far.”

Differences in support

Genny’s Place residents would first undergo a screening process to ascertain eligibility. The facility is slated to provide “efficiency-style apartments,” for single adults ages 18 years and older, with up to two beds per room, along with spaces for kitchens, bathrooms, laundry, computer rooms, storage, and staff offices. Men and women would have separate living areas to take a “trauma-informed” approach to caring for the clientele. Camuso added consideration would be taken for Lower Providence Township residents in need.

“You undertake the program and you accept the resident with the full expectation of success. There are reasons for you to believe that based on what you’ve learned about the potential resident. They don’t all make it, but that’s your expectation,” said Supervisor Peter MacFarland.

Camuso and Jordan detailed a handful of experiences of past clients with varying situations, but stressed that “success” is different for every person.

“It’s a service we need, and if every case were as you describe, I welcome a facility such as this,” said resident Sherri Beale. “I do piggyback on the questions that Mr. MacFarland had … (on) success rates and I think real statistics would be helpful.”

Public safety concerns

Beale and another township resident also expressed concerns surrounding public safety.

“A lot of people in a small area … that’s when bad things happen. A breeding ground for negative activity a lot of times,” a resident said, noting population density in nearby residential areas.

Jordan anticipated curfew for Genny’s Place residents would be 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. Addressing security concerns, Camuso said that staff would be on site, but not security personnel per se.

“The I hope that everyone would be on their best behavior because we’re going through a thorough screening process is … not really an answer,” Beale said.

There was a point of tension when township resident Kathie Eskie asked a slew of questions, so much so that Darby and Jonas had to interject at different points of the meeting.

“This is essentially cross examination. It is not respectful, it is not polite, it is not fair to the applicant,” Jonas said. “There will be a public hearing if the board votes, there will be opportunity for public comment, but I think this has gone too far, and it’s not fair to the applicant. They provided this board with sufficient information.”

“The residents of the township have a right to know what they’re getting into, and the only way they know that is by asking questions, and because they don’t like the tenor of my questions, because they’re not all pearly and cute, I can’t help that,” Eskie said. “I’ve lived in this township over 50 years, and spent a lot of time and energy working for the residents. You want to bang your (gavel) go ahead …”

“It was between you and Mr. Jonas. We’re going to stop right now. Thank you,” Darby replied.

“I’m done. I’m done. I’m done,” Eskie said.

Homelessness persists

Montgomery County’s homelessness continues to persist. The 2023 Point-in-Time Count revealed 357 staying in emergency shelters, temporary housing or outside on a cold night in January.

Darby also noted a “12.9 percent involvement for calls for social services in our community” over a six-month period lasting from June 1, 2023 to Dec. 31, 2023 in Lower Providence Township.

“I think this program would be an asset to us, and as far as the services that we’re talking about, we need them,” said township resident Kathy Laws. “I think so many of our residents, our neighbors are just one disaster away from being homeless and so I think it’s important that there are services in Montgomery County, and I think it’s probably not visible to people but there are homeless people in Lower providence Township.”

“We’re fortunate to live in a really nice community. Many of us have very nice lives here, but it doesn’t apply to all of us,” she continued. “So yes, there are people, there are neighbors and friends in this community who could use this.”

After nearly two hours, Darby made the motion to authorize the text amendment, which MacFarland seconded. The motion passed in a 4-0 vote. The advertisement has yet to be published, according to Township Manager E.J. Mentry. While it’s “not set in stone,” Mentry anticipated it to run within the next two-to-three months.

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