A homeless crisis has gripped many U.S. cities and small towns over the past several years, leaving municipalities struggling to address the swelling number of people living on the streets, in tents, and under bridges.
In Norristown, they are doing something about it. Sort of. Maybe.
A bizarre fight has been playing in recent weeks out between Norristown’s municipal president, Thomas Lepera, and local homeless advocate and Villanova University instructor Stephanie Sena. It has devolved into a he-said-she-said argument with no clear purpose nor end in sight.
Sena says Lepera claimed he was going to ship Norristown’s homeless population to Villanova’s campus. Lepera says he wants no such thing and that he never said anything of the sort.
Just whose version of the story is correct is uncertain. Neither Lepera nor Sena responded to requests for comment.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the councilman had told Sena he was planning on “taking buses and shipping people to Villanova.”
The paper claimed Lepera “cursed at a reporter” during a phone interview before claiming that he envisioned Villanova as the “perfect” location for a project to shelter Norristown’s homeless residents.
The school, he said, has “hundreds of millions in revenue,” it “prides itself on Catholic values,” it “wants to help the poor,” and it “has a school now with empty dorm rooms.”
He added, “I couldn’t see a more perfect scenario for where to move the homeless encampments.”
Eric Tars, the legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center in Washington, D.C., told DVJournal he was present at a recent meeting between Sena and Lepera in which, he claimed, the councilman behaved strangely.
Lepera had originally requested to meet on the campus green at Villanova, Tars said, before finally agreeing to meet in downtown Norristown.
“He immediately launched into his diatribe when Stephanie showed up,” Tars said.
“He had this whole speech he was prepared to deliver, in which he said, ‘If you want to send your clown show legal letters, you’d better believe I’m going to bring the clown show to Villanova’s campus. I’m going to set up a tent there, throw needles and garbage all over, and when the security comes to arrest me, I hope you show me the same respect you’re trying to show the people living in encampments in Norristown.’
“His assertion that he was trying to create a partnership with Villanova to bring people to live in the dorms there, or do some sort of constructive thing there, that was not what he intended there,” Tars claimed. “He wanted to make it a clown show.”
Lepera promptly departed the meeting after that, Tars said. While leaving, the councilman “waved his hand; it looked like he was flipping us the bird,” Tars noted.
Lepera has written several lengthy posts on his Facebook page about the controversy, including one in which he disputed The Inquirer’s framing of the story. “I never said I wanted to bus homeless people to Villanova,” he wrote. “I said I wanted to bus people, including myself, to the Villanova campus to make a point.”
In another, lengthier post, the councilman appeared to speak in the third person while writing on the matter.
“It makes sense for Lepera to see Ms. Sena’s advocacy as wasted breath directed at the wrong people,” he wrote. “…I’m also confused by the outrage against Thomas Lepera. If he said those things or not. … Lepera is a Norristown-born, multi-generational resident and union member, multiple times elected representative of Norristown.”
Officials have been struggling to address Norristown’s homeless crisis for months. Currently, a large homeless encampment has been established on property owned by PECO.
News reports last month indicated PECO and Norristown were preparing to sweep the encampment and clear out the people living there, though the city denied those rumors earlier this month.
“[T]here has never been a discussion of a citywide sweep,” Norristown said in a statement.
The city said the considerable local services available to homeless residents have unfairly led to inferences that the municipality suffers from an outsized homeless problem.
“Because we, like other county seats, are the home to the county agencies that are charged with leading on homelessness and other social safety net issues, Norristown is falsely characterized as the sole community with a homelessness issue,” the statement said.
Sena has been involved in homeless advocacy for years. Most recently, she oversaw the development of the Breaking Bread Community shelter in Upper Darby, which opened in December.