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Advocates pursuing legal action on behalf of homeless living along Schuylkill River Trail in Pottstown

POTTSTOWN — Legal advocates working on behalf of homeless individuals living on a stretch of land along the Schuylkill River Trail are pursuing a lawsuit seeking to prevent them from having to leave, as they assert “adequate viable shelter options (are) not available.”

Representatives of the Community Justice Project and Legal Aid of Southeastern PA filed a lawsuit earlier this month with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

“Displacing unhoused people without offering alternative shelter, especially during the winter, subjects our clients to serious dangers. We are seeking to protect our clients’ rights,” said Carolyn Johnson, Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s chief counsel.

Paper signs were posted last month along the property, which is owned by the borough, alerting those living there that they’ll have until Dec. 1 to vacate the area. The portion encompasses a roughly one-mile stretch, running between the Route 100 and Route 422 overpasses. Officials estimate between 25 and 30 people experiencing homelessness will be impacted.

“For your personal safety, occupying this location is not permitted. This is private property of the borough of Pottstown, and is located in a floodway, making it culpable to severe flooding during extreme weather that could endanger persons and property,” the notice states.

The notice directed those in need of assistance to call 211 or Montgomery County’s mobile crisis unit at 855-634-4673. Additionally, the notice stated Beacon of Hope’s warming center that opened on Nov. 1 “will have shelter spaces accessible, and they can be contacted through 211.”

In a Nov. 10 joint statement, representatives from the regional Legal Aid and Community Justice Project asserted the Pottstown-based Beacon of Hope warming center and county services “programs do not have the capacity to meet the current demands for shelter or to house all residents of the encampment.”

“The law provides that unhoused residents cannot be displaced from public land unless they are first offered adequate alternative shelter. The Borough of Pottstown has not offered adequate alternative shelter here,” said Community Justice Project Executive Director Marielle Macher.

Advocates also stressed the waiting lists for shelter and affordable housing are long, and capacity is limited following the June 2022 closure of the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center in Norristown.

“Our mission is to represent low-income people and to ensure that they have access to adequate housing and other necessities that make life livable, whether that may be inside or outside,” Johnson said. “The purpose of the litigation is to ensure that those who are homeless do not face criminal charges and are not being harassed.”

“They have the basic human right to exist and function,” Johnson continued. “Right now there is no alternative place to be. It’s not always possible for everyone to be indoors, but it should always be a goal to strive to achieve.”

When asked, Pottstown Beacon of Hope Executive Director Tom Niarhos said he was “surprised” to learn of the development prompting legal action on behalf of homeless individuals situated on the land just off the trail.

“I think that it will hopefully solidify … what they say the law says that you cannot remove people from public property without them having adequate shelter space,” Niarhos told MediaNews Group. “So I’m hoping that message is clear, not only in Pottstown, but in other areas of Montgomery County, so that things like that don’t happen as often, and the focus turns more towards providing shelter beds and emergency services rather than just moving people along. I’m hoping it shifts the focus.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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