Group still seeking a shelter site in Burlco

Posted: August 05, 2014

Despite its failure to acquire the Lumberton property where it hoped to create a homeless shelter, the president of Citizens Serving the Homeless Inc. says her organization is still looking to create a large homeless facility in Burlington County.

"Oh, definitely," Madelyn Mears-Sheldon said last week, adding that in February the county counted 1,660 homeless persons, the third-highest number in all the state's counties.

"We've looked at three sites and found two that are definite possibilities" since the Lumberton deal fell through in June, she said.

She said her group still regards the Lumberton site on Municipal Drive, which now has another potential buyer - as "perfect" and would consider acquiring it if it became available again.

Mears-Sheldon would not identify the other municipalities where CSH is looking for a new site, she said, for fear of arousing the kind of public backlash it met in Lumberton.

"We tried to reach out to neighbors" in Lumberton, she said, sitting at a small desk at the Christian Caring Center, a nondenominational outreach center for the needy in Browns Mills.

"But we met with so much resistance. They just would not talk with us."

A nonprofit based in Mount Holly, CSH announced plans in March to buy a vacant, five-acre former Nike missile base at 111 Municipal Drive and turn its former barracks into housing for up to 300 homeless people.

It also envisioned offices for case managers and on-site providers of job training, health and wellness care, addiction counseling, and other services designed to move most residents into permanent housing elsewhere.

Although CSH later said it intended to start with just 50 or 60 beds, the scope of the project quickly provoked resistance from many township residents.

But even as a homeowners' group calling itself Lumberton Cares gathered to plan legal strategies to block the project, CSH was unable to secure financing by the June 1 deadline agreed to by the seller.

"We told them we should have it [the financing] by June 10," Mears-Sheldon recalled last week. "But they told us they had another buyer who was willing to pay more" than the $375,000 asking price, and the CSH deal collapsed.

Ranch Hope, a Christian school for troubled boys in Alloway Township that owns the former missile base, did not return a call about the deal. Pat McKenna Realtors of Marlton, which is handling the sale, also did not return calls.

Mears-Sheldon said Ranch Hope's directors had told her they needed the money to fund the school's operations. "We understand their position," she said.

After two months, however, the new buyer's identity and plans for the former base remain uncertain. A recent posting on the Lumberton Cares website states that the prospective buyer is "unaffiliated with CSH" and "does not intend to place a homeless shelter" on the property, but does not identify it.

The website said, however, that the purchase agreement gives the prospective buyer until mid-September to determine the cost of removing underground storage tanks and possible environmental site remediation.

Lumberton residents Dan and Marie Wise said last week that while they joined and donated to Lumberton Cares soon after CSH announced its plans, they grew frustrated with its insistence that no one talk to reporters or attend informational meetings sponsored by CSH.

The Wises described the group's leadership as "arrogant and controlling," and voiced frustration that it has not posted an accounting of its finances.

Lumberton Cares did not return a request for comment.

The Lumberton construction office said last week it had received no applications for permits at the site.

Eric Arpert, spokesman for the Board of Freeholders, said the big increase from last year's homeless count of 1,300 was due in part to Burlington County's decision this year to include households receiving rental assistance, which most counties do not, and which it had not done in previous years.

Arpert said that while the freeholders and the county Department of Social Services agreed with CSH on the need to move away from using motels to house homeless people, it differed with the group's vision of a single, comprehensive center providing residence and services for the whole county.

He said that as part of its 10-year plan for addressing homelessness, the county had developed a "rapid re-housing pilot program" that seeks more aggressively to move clients from motels - which costs about $1,400 a month for a single room - and into permanent housing.

The pilot program carries a "rolling" caseload of about 30.

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