Lumberton residents seek information on possible homeless facility

Posted: March 06, 2014

Concerned about reports that a faith-based organization wants to create a 300-bed facility in the township to serve Burlington County's homeless population, about 120 residents turned out for Tuesday's Lumberton Township Committee meeting in hope of sharing their views and learning more.

But after Mayor Lew Jackson advised the crowd that the township had received no formal application for the project, and Solicitor Michael Mouber cautioned committee members about voicing opinions on a project they might have to vote on, only a few residents stepped to the microphones.

Citizens Serving the Homeless Inc., the Mount Holly nonprofit behind the project, was not represented at the meeting. Its president, Kent R. Pipes, said earlier in the day that he did not wish to be a "lightning rod" for community anger so early in the process.

The nonprofit announced on its website about a week ago that it had signed an agreement in early February to buy a five-acre parcel at Municipal Drive and Eayrestown Road that once housed an Army missile base. The site later served as the private Midway School, which has closed.

Although most seats in the meeting room were taken, and the rear wall was lined with people standing, only about eight residents came to the microphones to speak.

"Boy, do I want them [the homeless] to have help," said one woman. But she voiced fears that a homeless facility would house people with mental illness, criminal proclivities, and substance-abuse problems, and said their presence would devalue home prices.

Douglas Alba, a lawyer, urged residents to "reserve judgment" on the yet-to-be-submitted plan. "To comment on mere speculation won't do any good," he said.

Les Risell, a 10-year resident of the town who lives near the proposed site, followed Alba to the microphones to say he thought "it would be myopic if we waited for what is obviously an inevitability."

"I'm not sure Lumberton is prepared" for the possible demands on local schools and police that such a project might bring, Risell said. "Maybe you are aware of other places in Lumberton better suited" than the Municipal Drive site, he told committee members, who did not respond. "It's a huge, huge thing," Risell said, to some applause.

"I feel for people who are homeless," said a woman who identified herself as a mother, business owner, and resident. "But I vehemently oppose the idea of such a thing coming into our community, based on the type of character they [proponents of the facility] are referring to."

Calling itself a Judeo-Christian faith-based organization, Citizens Serving the Homeless says on its website that Community of Hope, as the center would be called, would provide housing to homeless people for one to 24 months, as well as job training and counseling for mental illness and substance abuse.

If approved, and if the nonprofit can raise $500,000 to buy and rehabilitate the site, Community would be a "revolutionary approach" to serving the homeless, the website says, based on successful large-scale homeless facilities its leaders examined in New Jersey, Southeastern Pennsylvania, California, and Texas.

Several residents asked procedural questions about how such an application might proceed and what sort of notification residents might receive about hearings.

Mouber and Committeeman Jim Conway said that it was too soon to know if the project would need a use variance, but that if so, property owners within 200 feet of the site would receive notices from the township's land-use board. Conway, a former mayor, said the site was zoned R-2, for residential and agricultural uses.

Later, Mouber recommended to committee members that they not attend a March 13 informational meeting that the proponents of the facility are hosting in Mount Holly for area clergy, because the committee could be called on to hear an appeal if the land-use board rejected a variance request.

Citizens Serving the Homeless says on its website that its vision for a Lumberton facility would be modeled on Haven for Hope, which it calls a "best practices" residential, training, and counseling center for the homeless in San Antonio, Texas.

doreilly@phillynews.com856-779-3841 doreillyinq

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