Norristown homeless seek refuge in shelter

By Diana Trasatti
February 19, 2009

Megan Pellegrino

Rows of cots are aligned strategically along the tile-covered concrete floor. A white sheet covers the thin mattresses and one or two throw blankets are neatly folded on the bottom of the makeshift beds, some with child-like stuffed animals placed upon them. A few beige walls, no doors, are the only separation between males and females. In this bedroom, all 75 inhabitants are roommates. They all experience each person’s nightmares and they all hear each single cough and each individual snore. Besides this large bedroom, the residents of the Norristown shelter share another common bond. They are all homeless.

“Don’t judge us because we’re here, just because we’re having a hard time,” Raseanya Rivera, a resident of the shelter, said.

Rivera appears like any other 23-year-old; talking proudly about her passion for art, music and writing. Going by the beaming grin on her face alone, no one would ever suspect that she is one of the residents at a homeless shelter.

“These are people like us who just had rotten luck,” Genny O’Donnell, director of the Coordinated Outreach Center, said.

O’Donnell became involved with the shelter in October 2006 when the Norristown hospital donated a wing to act as a shelter in response to the county’s request and the urging of the community action council.

The emergency shelter’s goal is to help the residents become self-sufficient obtain an education, employment and permanent housing. Organizing activities that promote community involvement is one the programming aspects that O’Donnell holds in high importance.

“This is the bottom. It is here or the woods. We encourage people to get involved in something that will get them out,” O’Donnell said.

Homelessness became a national problem in the ’80s during the terms of President Ronald Reagan. When Reagan cut the federal deficit from $74 billion to $19 billion, the affordable housing market suffered and states could no longer pay for housing. In place of housing prices within the range of low-income American’s ability to pay, came higher rents. With no government subsidizing and private landlords renting out apartments to those willing to pay the top price, the population of people living paycheck to paycheck were left on the streets.

“As long as there are people who are willing to pay these high rents, the ones who can not afford it are out of luck,” Dr. Jeffrey Gingerich, associate professor of sociology, said.

With the signing of McKinney Veto Act in 1987, money was put back into housing. This money went into soup kitchens and housing for singles adults. The signing of this act managed the problem, but did little to end it, and the populations of families who lost their homes due to the earlier budget cuts were still left in the dark.

“Once a system creates homelessness, then it’s going to happen. People are going to fall into the hole. You need to monitor and re-evaluate the legislation that was passed. If they’re not improving anything, then they need to change,” O’Donnell said.

Outside factors in which an individual has no control can also lead down the path of homelessness.

“You would never think this would happen and here we are,” Mary Ellen, a resident of the shelter, said.

After a divorce, Mary Ellen, a housewife of 14 years, found herself forced to leave her home with only the clothes on her back. The intense pain she receives from her rheumatoid arthritis makes it difficult to work, but she still manages to wake up 5:30 a.m. every morning to clean houses for $10 an hour. Despite no longer being able to live in the home she shared with her husband and children, she remains optimistic.

“I’m going to make it out of here,” she said.

James, a shelter resident, found himself homeless, when he was hit by a car that left him unable to work. The long mailing process and expensive attorney’s prevented James from receiving his due money.

“You got to have faith. It will all work out in the end,” James said.

Not only did his accident leave him homeless and without money, but just as painful, he cannot currently afford to see his children residing out of state.

“I would like to see my son and daughter. Hopefully I’ll get to see them next year,” he said.

Awareness of current legislation and who is in office are ways that citizens can take an active role in combating this epidemic. Soup kitchens and shelter donations are beneficial, but are not getting to the root of the problem.

“We need to be advocating for laws and policies that make sure we don’t have homelessness in our society,” Gingerich said.

Until a major change occurs in our society, O’Donnell will be continuing working at getting people off the streets and into a stable living situation.

“You see people make it. They can get out of here. They can make it,” O’Donnell said.

Diana Trasatti

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