In Suburbs, Homeless Snubbed

Posted: March 20, 1989

In 1985, the directors of the Lower Bucks County American Red Cross decided to establish a shelter for the homeless in Bristol Township.

Now, four years later, the Red Cross still does not have a permanent shelter. And it's not for lack of trying.

"It boils down to the old phrase 'Not in my back yard,' " said George Mertz, the agency's assistant director.

It is a story repeated time and again in the Pennsylvania suburbs of Philadelphia: A nonprofit group wants to start a shelter, but few areas will have it. Even when a location can be found, funding is often elusive.

In Norristown, a 14-bed men's shelter closed four years ago after borough officials refused to change the zoning laws. Directors of the Bucks/Montgomery Center for Human Services, which runs a shelter in Hatboro, have been trying for two years to find a location for a second shelter. And on the Main Line, say homeless activists there, few would be bold enough even to suggest opening one.

"It's a real problem trying to find the right place with the right zoning," said Barbara Wilson, housing coordinator for the Chester County Department of Human Services. "And if you are going to start a shelter, you have to have a building."

In the suburbs, unlike Philadelphia, you have to have virtually all of your own money, too, since the county governments provide little funding for homeless shelters.

The Salvation Army in Pottstown, for instance, spent the last five years trying to raise $515,000 to open a shelter there. Major Floyd L. Wood, the commanding officer, said that although groundbreaking ceremonies were held last month, the agency is still $100,000 shy of its goal.

This year Philadelphia will spend about $16 million of local taxpayers' money to provide shelter space and beds. Those figures do not include state and federal emergency housing grants that Philadelphia receives.

In contrast, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties spent a total of about $3 million on the same services all of last year.

More than 95 percent of that money came from state and federal grants the counties passed on to shelter operators, meaning the suburban counties used little of their own funds.

Beyond the grant programs, suburban shelter operators must rely heavily on church groups, charitable organizations, even the Boy Scouts, to keep going.

Critics in the suburbs say that such a conservative approach has left hundreds of homeless in those areas unserved. The four counties have about 650 shelter beds, but there are about 1,710 homeless people in those counties on any given night, according to 1987 state Department of Public Welfare figures, which are widely recognized as being low.

"I would like to see the county doing more," said Lt. Paul Copeland of the West Chester Salvation Army, who turns away homeless from his packed shelter night after night.

Said Joseph Maccolini, director of the Patrician Society, a charitable group affiliated with St. Patrick's parish in Norristown, "Montgomery County is certainly not responsive to the needs of homeless people."

Cerie Goldenberg, deputy director of Montgomery County Adult Services, said, "We don't want to be in the shelter business. Our priority is to get people out of shelters quickly and get them into a stable housing situation." She said that Montgomery County spent none of its own money on shelters but at some point might begin doing that.

In Bucks County, that is starting to happen.

Mertz of the Lower Bucks Red Cross said Bucks officials recently agreed to give the agency two acres in Bristol Township to erect a permanent shelter, which the Red Cross would operate only from November through March. But even that donation came only after four years of lobbying.

During the winter of 1985-86, Mertz said, the Red Cross shelter was housed in an empty health department building in Bristol. The next year it was located in a church. But last winter no permanent site could be found.

"Every two weeks we moved to another church," said Mertz. "Many of the homeless couldn't keep up with us. They didn't have the means to move from one facility to the next."

This winter, the shelter landed in an converted warehouse in Penndel. "No other township would even allow us to come in and talk about it," Mertz said. ''Little Penndel really stands head and shoulders above the rest."

Mertz is optimistic that a permanent shelter on the county-donated land will be built in time for next winter. "There are still a lot of things that have to be determined," he said, "but it is definitely on the agenda."

Shelley Gardner, executive assistant to the Bucks County commissioners, said the county government was getting more concerned about the homeless. "In January 1988 the commissioners pledged to build a shelter in Bucks County, and by the end of this year we will hope to have done that. Homelessness is a priority issue now, and that is new for us."

She concedes that recognition of the problem has been slow.

"Few in Bucks County really want to believe there is homelessness here," Gardner said. "The homeless out here are very often the working-class poor. You don't see them like you do in the city. You don't trip over them on the way to work each morning. But they are here, and they are growing. The time has come that when we address these programs, we begin looking at county operating funds as a possible source of revenue."

Nancy Mapes, assistant director of the Bucks/Montgomery Center for Human Services, said the agency has looked at a number of properties in the Hatboro area for a second shelter over the last two years. Some were too run down and would cost too much to fix, she said. But when a good site was found, "things just never came through," Mapes said. "I really think that neighbors just do not want you in the community."

Even the agency's existing shelter, which is five years old and houses homeless families, might never have been established if not for the fact that ''most of the people in Hatboro didn't know we were here," Mapes said.

Maccolini of the Patrician Society in Norristown still remembers the night in 1985 when his 14-bed shelter was merged with one at the Salvation Army down the street because he had been denied a zoning exception.

"We banged our head against that wall for 18 months," Maccolini said. ''We were in a building that was a former dance studio next to the Norristown YWCA, and across the street was a school. But it was zoned a residential area. One night we just picked up our bunk beds and mattresses and sheets and casserole tins and moved a block and a half south to the Salvation Army. They opened another section, cleared out a room, and started a men's shelter."

He said he hadn't tried to open another shelter since, but not because Norristown doesn't need one. Many are turned away from the Salvation Army every night.

"They go to the courthouse and sleep behind a retaining wall," he said. ''We recently had a group of people living in lean-tos near an electric company substation."

He said he agreed with county officials who argue that shelters are not a solution and that more money and efforts should go toward counseling programs and affordable housing, but he said the need for more emergency shelters could not be ignored.

"When we give out food, we don't expect to fix their entire family situation," Maccolini said. "We just don't want them to be hungry. Besides, many of these people have been through the system, and they're back."

Four years ago, Mable Purcell spent her evenings monitoring channel 9 on her citizens band radio, a channel reserved for roadside emergencies. Today, she runs REACT, or Radio Emergency Association Citizens Team, whose primary function is to find places for the homeless in the upper Main Line areas of Malvern, Willistown and Easttown in Chester County.

"Four years ago, we may have gotten four or five homeless people, but this winter we've seen 30, so the numbers are growing," Purcell said. "We have been talking about getting a shelter around here, but that's about all, talking. There is nothing for these people out here. You are on the Main Line, and that word alone . . . People do not want something like this in their community."

So, with funds raised by the Upper Main Line Ministerial Association, Purcell often buys homeless people some fast food and puts them up for the night in a motel. "We will pay for one night only," she stressed. "After that, we try and find them a place at a shelter in West Chester. The churches can only do so much."

For those shelters that are up and running in the suburbs, the going is difficult. In 1985 Margaret Valentine, tired of watching people eating from trash cans and sleeping in deserted mushroom houses in southern Chester County, pinned a button on her chest that read: "Buy me a board in the name of the Lord, $1.95."

"We stacked up the two-by-fours a bunch at a time until we had enough" to renovate an old house in Kenneth Square for the homeless, said Valentine.

When she ran out of money to pay her Amish carpenter, he drew her how-to

plans so she could finish the renovation herself. Shingles were torn from the old building one by one and put in plastic trash bags. Then the bags were placed in front of houses throughout the borough so the trash collectors would

haul them away. "We didn't have any money to rent a dumpster," she explained. "We dug the cellar by hand."

Today, His Mission in Kennett Square houses 30 people. Valentine, the director, said it was already time to expand. But it cost $67,000 to run the mission last year. United Way pitched in $10,000, she said. The rest came from fund-raising.

"If it weren't for the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts and food drives at the schools, I don't know how we'd feed everybody," she said. "But we will

put on this new addition. We need to. It's hard. But if you want to, and you're dedicated, you will find a way."

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