Reaching out to Montgomery County's homeless

Shelter resident Harriett Marlin was evicted from her home after her mother died. She had been living with and caring for her. She arrived at the Montgomery County shelter in January.
Shelter resident Harriett Marlin was evicted from her home after her mother died. She had been living with and caring for her. She arrived at the Montgomery County shelter in January. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 22, 2013

The largest Montgomery County homeless shelter was full one recent day. That might surprise some, since Montgomery County has a reputation for affluence and residences big and resplendent enough to host royalty.

The people staying at the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center on the grounds of Norristown State Hospital aren't so picky. They just want a bed, a blanket, and a meal until they can get past their troubles.

People like 51-year-old Harriett Marlin of Cheltenham Township, who sat at a table in the day room, her bag of yarn and knitting needles beside her, and the book she was reading, Crocheting for Dummies, in front of her.

"I was evicted from my home because I didn't pay my mortgage," she said. Actually, it was her mother's home and her mother's mortgage. Marlin was living with and taking care of her ailing mother.

When the older woman died, Marlin found herself broke, bewildered, and, eventually, homeless.

County officials are taking a new approach to helping people like Marlin, who have lost their homes or are teetering on that precipice.

Representatives of the Montgomery County commissioners and its Department of Housing and Community Development have been talking with other government offices, philanthropies, and nonprofit organizations about the "Your Way Home Montgomery County" initiative.

The county has always had programs for the homeless, said Kathy Phifer, director of the housing department.

"To be perfectly honest, we were doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results - and the results weren't changing."

The initiative features nonprofits and county offices banding together with Phifer's department. Foundations also are partners in an effort to offset shrinking federal dollars.

The county already has a Homeless Prevention Center hotline. By the end of the year, those who call it should be able to be referred to community-based housing resource centers.

The effort then uses a service model called "progressive engagement."

Agencies will work to move people from shelters or transitional housing to permanent homes as quickly as possible. People will receive fewer resources over a longer period of time, Phifer said, rather than getting 24 months of help and then a wave goodbye.

Once people are in stable housing, agencies will continue to give them support for a period, tailored to their needs.

Suburban poverty in the Philadelphia region increased about 40 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to a study from the Brookings Institution.

"So many of these families find themselves living not just paycheck to paycheck, but one paycheck away from poverty," Commissioner Josh Shapiro said. That crisis can be triggered by a big medical bill or the loss of a job.

Statistics give a snapshot of a single day in the county. On Jan. 30, 185 people were in shelters, and an additional 266 were in transitional residences, for a total of 451 adults and children. Thirteen others in shelters were classified as "chronically homeless individuals."

The shelter Marlin is in has 50 beds for adults. On average, it houses about 60 people daily, said director Genny O'Donnell.

But the homeless are not all in shelters. Some sleep in church basements. Some have camped in Pottstown, near the river.

Mike has been living in the Norristown shelter since August. He did not want his last name used, partly because he did not want to make his job hunt harder, partly out of embarrassment.

He did allow O'Donnell to tell his story:

Mike was a construction contractor living out of state and doing just fine - until the economy and his business tanked. He and his wife separated, and Mike moved back to Montgomery County, where he grew up and where he figured friends and family would help him through the difficult days. But they were struggling, too.

He ended up pitching a tent in a wooded area in Pottstown. When he accidentally wandered into someone's backyard one evening, police made him decamp.

Marlin, the woman learning to crochet, arrived at the shelter in January. At first, she couldn't believe she was homeless.

Now, she said, she appreciates the help. She wants to move into her own place as soon as possible - men and women essentially live in the same large dormitory - and is looking for a subsidized apartment.

In the fall, she plans to take classes at Montgomery County Community College. Her goal is to get her mother's house back, or live in another in the same neighborhood.

Sometimes, when she looks around the shelter at the other residents, she thinks about the lesson this phase of life has taught her.

"You never know whether or not it's going to happen to you."

The Montgomery County homeless prevention hotline number is 877-646-6306. It operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Contact Carolyn Davis at 610-313-8109 or, or follow on Twitter @carolyntweets.

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