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Looking for people without shelter in Norristown and finding community

Like Christmas carolers bundled up against the crisp, cold air the motley crew of volunteers moved swiftly through the desolate streets of Norristown, Pennsylvania in search of individuals who were without a permanent place to lay their heads.

Every year the municipality attempts to count a moving target by sending volunteers out into the night to survey the homeless. The hope was that by conducting these surveys there would be a clearer understanding of the extent of the problem and in turn the appropriate amount of funding could be provided to address the need.  While we walked along the routes that countless homeless individuals walk daily to meet their basic needs, I realized the coordination and energy this nomadic way of life required for survival. As we advanced from laundromat to convenience store to the local library, I tried to steel myself for any number of possibilities I could encounter over the next four hours. Would there be annoyance or possible hostility as we illuminated the pitch-black silent woods that constituted someone’s home with rays of brilliant light from flashlights and cellphones?

In the end, we did not encounter vast numbers of homeless individuals as a code blue had been declared. It was thought that many had sought refuge within the network of churches that morphed into shelters when the temperature dropped below 32 degrees. Instead, I found confirmation of connection and support at each of the encampments formed by those experiencing homelessness.

There was the brightly colored one for transition aged youth and another one that housed day laborers. At the Norristown Transportation Center, we encountered a group of individuals who were experiencing homelessness themselves, manning folding tables filled with clothing and other items for a local foundation that serves the homeless. They said that staff members were unable to attend that night and they wanted to help others.  When we gave out toiletries, this information would be shared with others in the area, and they would approach us. Despite all that they had lost, their compassion and care for one another had not been diminished.

Everywhere we went, I was impressed by the sense of community among the homeless, mainly because I myself have yet to experience this same sense of care and connection in my own socioeconomically advantaged neighborhood.

*Note: Gene Paliescheskey from CommunityWorx and Akilah Williams from AdvocacyWorx participated in the Point-in-Time count in Montgomery County, PA on January 24, 2023.


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