Group planning to assist homeless eye Lumberton site

Trustees of Citizens Serving the Homeless Inc. in Mount Holly are (from left) Kent Pipes, Thomas Miller, Dick Higginbotham, Madelyn Mears-Sheldon, Loretta Robinson, Wes Kennedy, Sharon Christenson, and Melissa Young. The group's proposal is at odds with Burlington County's 10-year plan, an official says.
Trustees of Citizens Serving the Homeless Inc. in Mount Holly are (from left) Kent Pipes, Thomas Miller, Dick Higginbotham, Madelyn Mears-Sheldon, Loretta Robinson, Wes Kennedy, Sharon Christenson, and Melissa Young. The group's proposal is at odds with Burlington County's 10-year plan, an official says. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 17, 2014

LUMBERTON A nonprofit group's plan for a controversial 300-bed homeless facility in Lumberton is "not in concert" with the county's long-term plans, the county's spokesman says.

"We all want to end homelessness," said Eric Arpert, communications director for the freeholder board. "But the difference lies in how to do it."

Citizens Serving the Homeless Inc. (CSH), based in Mount Holly, said last week it expected to submit an application to Lumberton by June.

Arpert said the freeholders had no plans to block the project, but noted "there are no plans for us to help fund" its construction because the county has a different, decentralized vision for serving its homeless.

CSH's plan calls for buying a former Army base at 111 Municipal Dr. and converting the onetime barracks and other buildings into a comprehensive and "transformative" treatment and residential facility.

Its vision calls for serving about 60 residents by September 2016, with a long-term goal of housing 300 clients for up to 24 months.

Madelyn Mears-Sheldon, president of CSH, said her organization was "not working at cross purposes" with the county but believed its own model of service could prove more efficient and effective.

The county's "scattered approach can't get all the services to people at one spot," she said. As a result, she said, "it takes them [homeless persons] a lot longer" to clear the obstacles keeping them from employment and independent living.

But Arpert defended Burlington County's 10-year plan, adopted two years ago, which calls for four or five residences and service centers around the county. The county's homeless population in 2013 was estimated at more than 1,300 over the course of the year. Many the county assists stay in motels.

"The idea is to keep people in the neighborhoods they are familiar with, and with access to services," Arpert said of the 10-year plan.

To be called Community of Hope, the five-acre campus CSH envisions would provide medical services, drug and mental health counseling, job training and placement in addition to housing, its leadership team told a meeting of about 60 area clergy on Wednesday.

Its vision is modeled on Haven for Hope, a $110 million facility that opened four years ago on a 37-acre site in San Antonio, Texas. It resembles a college campus, and its construction was funded by the state, county, city, business leaders, and private donors.

With a stated mission to break the cycle of homelessness, Haven for Hope provides housing, job training, and counseling for 800 residents at a time in its "transformational" program.

A separate space on the campus called "The Prospect Courtyard," provides meals, medical services, and mats for outdoor sleeping for 600 additional clients a day who are unprepared to commit to residential living, sobriety, and supervision.

"Haven for Hope changed our thinking," Kent R. Pipes, a board member of CSH and longtime advocate for the poor, told Wednesday's gathering at First Presbyterian Church of Mount Holly.

After six years of studying dozens of homeless programs in California, Texas, Southeast Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, Pipes said, CSH has concluded the best approach "is to be comprehensive rather than scattered. That way, you can achieve better results with fewer dollars."

Evita Morin, vice president of Haven for Hope's transformational program, said last week it had 797 residents in its residential, full-service transformational program, 147 of whom were children.

Since 2010, Morin said, 1,325 residents have graduated to permanent housing, and "90 percent of these have stayed in permanent housing for more than a year."

The transformational program, which houses more than 40 service providers on the campus, has also assisted 870 people with job placement, Morin said, graduated 606 people from drug and alcohol treatment, and treated more than 400 in its mental health day-treatment program.

More than 16,000 individuals have been served by Haven for Hope since 2010.

Asked about newspaper reports that local nuisance complaints to police had increased 42 percent in a half-mile radius around Prospect Courtyard two years after it opened, Morin said there had been "some overflow" of the more itinerant homeless into adjacent woods and fields.

"Prowlers, public intoxication, fighting, overdoses, and burglary" were the most common complaints, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Police have since clamped down on those who misbehave outside the courtyard, Morin said, and Haven for Hope has launched a program to teach those who come for services to respect the neighborhood.

"You have to explain it every day," Morin said. "It's an important message."

Pipes told Wednesday's clergy gathering CSH hoped to raise $500,000 to buy the Lumberton site, at the intersection of Eayreston Road and Municipal Drive, and another $500,000 to convert buildings.

Vacated by the Army in 1974, the site later served as the Midway School, a boarding school for troubled youth that has since closed. The property is owned by Ranch Hope, a Christian boarding school for troubled youth, in Alloway, Cumberland County.

Situated in an upscale residential neighborhood, the site is zoned R2, a designation that permits some agricultural and residential uses, according to township officials.

Pipes said the property's previous use as a barracks and boarding school established precedent for dormitories as a conforming use that required no variance.

The plan has already aroused fierce resistance among local residents, some of whose swimming pools abut the property, and a large crowd turned out for a strategy meeting Wednesday.

Nonresidents, including news media, were barred from the meeting, but one person who attended said options discussed included:

Hiring lawyers to challenge the application and file appeals if the township approves it.

Buying the property with donations, restoring it, and donating it to the township or the local historical society as a park or open space.

Pipes said he felt confident CSH would win any legal challenge to its application because CSH is a faith-based organization and "religion trumps zoning under federal law."

The Religious Land Use and Individual Persons Act of 2000 bars municipalities from using burdensome zoning laws to restrict religious entities seeking to build or work in their communities. It also gives religious landowners a special right to challenge land-use laws.

Lumberton residents "had better understand that," Pipes said.

Whether CSH fits the law's definition of a religious institution remains to be determined, however.

"In general, without religious exercise or a religious assembly or institution . . . protections do not apply," said Eric Rassbach, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in Washington.

He acknowledged he was not familiar with CSH's religious status.

Mears-Sheldon said that she hoped a legal battle would not be necessary and that residents' anxieties would diminish after they learned more about CSH's plan.

"We want their feedback before we make an application," she said.


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