The Shame Of Pottstown

There are two groups in Pottstown that are at odds with each other. For the life of me I cannot understand why. 

One group is called PAID, Pottstown Area Industrial Development. This is what they do, from their website:

Pottstown Area Industrial Development, Inc. (PAID) is a 501c(3) non-profit corporation originally formed in 1965 to promote commercial and industrial development in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

The other group is called Pottstown LIFT, Living In Faith Together. This is what they do from their website:

Pottstown Living in Faith Together (LIFT) is a not-for-profit corporation based in Pottstown, PA that provides facilities and support for charitable programs that address community needs such as overnight homeless accommodations. I am a board member of this organization.

These seem like two necessary things for Pottstown to be doing, but very different from each other.

Pottstown LIFT is quite proud of the fact we were able to create some winter shelter for those who would otherwise be on the street during the COVID winter of 2020/2021. We are housed in a former Roman Catholic School, and for the very first time in Pottstown history we were able to do this with the unanimous support of Pottstown Borough.  We were also given permission to be open in this way for the 2021/2022 season.

Operating a shelter like this has some challenges, particularly in dealing with personnel, but there is experience within the group, and help from local churches and volunteers. Most of the challenges stem from two areas:

  • Pottstown provides nothing in terms of bathroom facilities for people that are homeless. The ensuing problems are obvious.
  • The Shelter opens at 8 PM. We intend to serve Pottstown locals only on a first-come basis. People have to line-up outdoors in the cold to get a spot. Vying for a position has its challenges. LIFT does not have enough room to house all who come to our door, and distance requirements from CDC guidelines limit the number we can serve as well.

A truly wonderful opportunity has come to LIFT as a gift. It is the gift of a building to operate long term, and for much longer in the year. If you believe that no one should have to sleep outside in the cold, then you would most likely agree that no one should be forced to sleep outside at any time. 

Pottstown has never offered this kindness to it’s homeless citizens. I find that heartless, and contrary to the attitude of other nearby towns such as West Chester, Reading, Coatesville, Norristown, Lansdale and Phoenixville, all of whom have shelters located in their towns.

Pottstown LIFT has a building and is willing to raise private funding to refurbish and staff it. However Pottstown Borough Council has turned us down.  

You see, Pottstown has a rule that boils down to this.  You cannot shelter homeless people in the same area as other residents. We requested a zoning variance regarding this nasty rule and were turned down. 

I am paraphrasing when I say that the borough manager has suggested that we explore other areas outside of the borough, or in municipalities that don’t have this forbidding ordinance. We were told that not one single borough council member was in favor of our requested zoning change. Let me also mention that the Borough Manager is on the board of PAID. 

The  History    

When downtown churches in Pottstown could no longer accommodate homeless men and women due to the pandemic, PottstownLIFT came to their rescue by leasing an old school building from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and welcomed them with coffee, hot chocolate, snacks and love every night of the week through the entire cold season. The program became known as “Al’s Heart”. Although PottstownLIFT will sponsor Al’s Heart again this year, it is widely known and understood that the emergency approvals from the Borough that permitted this operation cannot be repeated in future years.

Consequently, a local citizen offered to donate an unfinished and vacant structure as a location for PottstownLIFT to continue their mission. While the property is not in the downtown business district, it is in a town residential neighborhood and so an amended ordinance would need to be carefully constructed to allow the mission to operate there. Things appeared to be moving in a supportive direction until an old and established organization called Pottstown Area Industrial Development (PAID) got involved. 

PAID is a 501c(3) non-profit corporation formed in 1965 to promote commercial and industrial development in Pottstown.

While many of the Pottstown businesses were appreciative and supportive of the work done by PottstownLIFT, apparently a handful of the wealthier business owners are opposed to having any temporary sleeping accommodations for the homeless anywhere near the town and engaged PAID to successfully oppose the petition for an amended ordinance. The denial is cold- hearted and ignores that for years the downtown churches used to house these folks in cold weather without any additional negative repercussions to the downtown. In fact, providing them with a place with bathrooms, showers, and laundry for 12 hours out of 24 would be a vast improvement. The fact remains that the homeless will continue to have the right to walk through the town. The hope of some of the business leaders and PAID that this denial will somehow eliminate homeless folks from the town is unfathomable.

Let’s look at this for what it is. Pottstown, unlike almost everywhere else, refuses to even allow support for those in need of safe and dignified shelter. People that have to walk everywhere shouldn’t be asked to walk “outside of the borough,” or to another town. 

Every Jewish, Christian or Muslim follower knows that we are mandated to help the poor. But this is not a question of faith, it is a question of decency. 

Folks that live in Pottstown without a permanent address are no less than any other resident. Pottstown is not going to rebuild it’s downtown by forcing fellow Pottstonians out. 

Lacking the moral courage to do the right thing for our community is an outrage to the call for charity that all Jews, Christians and Moslems hear and understand. 

Shame on Pottstown Borough Council and PAID.

I tremble for my town of Pottstown when I consider that the “haves” can tell the “have nots’ where they can sleep, or even where they can walk. 

 Rev. Dennis Coleman, Christ Episcopal Church, Pottstown.

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