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In Norristown, a Bizarre Fight Over Homeless Encampments

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.

GIORDANO: Norristown Home of High Drama on Homelessness

Over the last 10 years, Norristown has become the Kensington lite of suburban Philadelphia. Many mental health and drug and alcohol centers have opened in the town.

Many people drop out of those programs and live on the streets in Norristown. This situation has come to a head because PECO is poised to remove homeless encampments from its properties.

The situation has become high drama because of the battle between Stephanie Sena, a Villanova University law professor and homeless advocate, and Norristown Council President Tom LePera. LePera is a Democrat and local union leader, but that did not stop him from threatening to send the homeless to Villanova, according to Sena and a witness.

LaPera allegedly said he had offered incentives to the homeless to board a bus and be dropped off at Villanova University, which he reportedly said has many empty dorm rooms in the summer that could house the homeless.

LePera also said he was modeling himself after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has transported nearly 100,000 illegal immigrants to sanctuary cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. New York, in particular, is in crisis mode after receiving 70,000 or more immigrants.

Even though LePera has somewhat walked back the alleged comments, I understand his point. I believe Sena is the face of the elitist advocates that don’t want to address why Norristown has to bear the burden of homelessness in Montgomery County.

Villanova issued a statement that Sena has not been working on behalf of the school. I consider the university a liberal elitist institution that virtue signals about issues like homelessness but doesn’t help places like Norristown deal with it.

Speaking of elitist virtue signalers, The Philadelphia Inquirer thundered that Norristown is not the only Montgomery County town it feels has sought to criminalize homelessness and poverty. It also attacked Pottstown for penalizing churches for their homeless feeding programs. I’ve interviewed officials in Pottstown about this, and they made a good case that these programs were putting a tremendous strain on their town.

Norristown is not a large town. According to most government reports, about 21 percent of its residents live in poverty. It doesn’t have the political clout of places like Villanova, Lower Merion, or Radnor. What would those communities do about homeless encampments in their towns? LePera, in his own contorted way, put this issue out there. It’s not a matter of chance that Norristown has ended up in this position.

The Inquirer reported that Montgomery County Chief Operating Officer Lee Soltysiak said in a statement, “Homelessness is not an issue that should be addressed through theatrics. It is a serious matter affecting the lives of far too many people countywide, and we must work together to solve it.” What does Mr. Soltysiak propose to relieve Norristown? What specifically will be done to take the pressure off Norristown? What does Villanova say should be done to relieve Norristown?

The silence is very reminiscent of responses by the area elitist institutions when the issue of relieving the people of Kensington comes up. In the current race to become the next mayor of Philadelphia, candidates Cherelle Parker and David Oh have routinely been criticized when they espouse aggressive policies to break up the area’s open-air drug markets. In fact, there seems to be more support for safe injection sites rather than removing Kensington as a magnet for lawlessness.

So, thanks to Thomas Le Pera for highlighting not just the problem of homelessness but the people and institutions that make designated poor and voiceless communities have to bear the burden for everyone else.

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