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Pa. encampment residents struggle to stay afloat as SCOTUS weighs landmark homelessness case

A man stands next to a bicycle.
Marcus Biddle
James Antonio, 61, is a homeless resident living in the Borough of Pottstown standing next to his bike.

In the past few months, Gerald, 30, who declined to give his last name over privacy concerns, has grieved the death of his mother, became a father and lost his job as a property manager. And now he’s found himself in a previously unimaginable circumstance. He is unhoused and living in a tent city in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

“I don’t think living in the woods is for anybody — unless you’re going camping,” he said.

Gerald has been a long-time Pottstown resident living in rental apartments. He now tries to make things work in this encampment, which he shares with at least 30 other people.

“You have to be Ford tough to be on here,” he said. “Because every day you have to survive, whether it’s getting food, getting water or just getting through the day.”

The encampment is tucked away in a wooded enclave on College Drive near the Pottstown campus of Montgomery County Community College. In recent months, Gerald and others began laying down bark mulch pathways throughout their tent city because the area is prone to flooding.

“The mulch is here because when it rains, this is all it turns into mud, and it gets really messy, and it’s hard to even stay clean or even walk without slipping because it’s so muddy,” he said.

Most consider Gerald an outspoken leader in his tent city. One of his responsibilities is maintaining a clean environment, which can be a huge undertaking.

In the past, abandoned tents, trash and hazard materials have been left strewn about by former community members who have moved on.

“The place was a little bit messy just due to the campers that were here, and they left, and they just left the big mess, and we’re just trying to clean it up.”

An encampment in the woods.
Marcus Biddle
Sweeps of encampments result in abandoned tents and personal belongings of people experiencing homelessness near the Schuylkill River Trail in the Borough of Pottstown.

Supreme Court case looms large over Pottstown encampments

Like several others around the borough, Gerald’s encampment sits on privately owned property. Pottstown officials have previously adopted strict laws against camping in public, resulting in law enforcement-led sweeps of encampments and fines for unhoused individuals.

In 2023, Pottstown was sued in the case of Better Days Ahead Outreach Inc. v. Borough of Pottstown, after unhoused citizens living in the Pottstown College Drive encampment faced multiple criminal actions from the township.

In November of that year, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted a preliminary injunction for the plaintiffs, basing the decision on the Eighth Amendment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause, and preventing further criminal actions.

This federal court’s decision could now be reversed, as the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in a landmark case, which will determine whether or not it’s unconstitutional to criminalize people experiencing homelessness.

The case known as Johnson v. Grants Pass involves the small town of Grants Pass, Oregon, and the clause under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The case gets to the issue of the rights of people who are homeless — and whether they can be fined or even arrested for sleeping outside when there are not enough shelter beds available.

The Court is expected to decide this case during the summer, and depending on its ruling, could limit or empower the way local governments handle the homelessness crisis, including Pottstown.

People clean up trash in the woods near an encampment.
Marcus Biddle
Volunteers helping the municipal workers with the Borough of Pottstown removing personal items left behind from this vacant encampment.

“When you enter homelessness, you think it’s the last stop. You think there’s no resources actually to help us transition,” Gerald said. “There has to be other resources to help us get out of homelessness whether that’s making affordable housing or something like that.”

‘I’m stuck out here’

For some unhoused Pottstown residents like James Antonio, 61, not having an income that supports the cost of living is what keeps him from finding a home.

Antonio has lived in various area encampments since 2020. The former Florida resident became homeless after his car was stolen while visiting his mother in Pottstown over Thanksgiving. He now finds himself unhoused and jobless, with his bike being the only means of transportation.

“I was in the Army, so I don’t really see much difference in being out in the field, except for people stealing your stuff,” he said.

Antonio is a Vietnam combat veteran. He is supposed to receive 100% Veterans Affairs (VA) disability, but he only receives 20%.

“I’m stuck out here,” he said. “I’m only getting $300 a month. The VA messed up my paperwork and I’m only getting $300.38 a month. I’m supposed to get retirement — Food Stamps cut me off because I don’t have paperwork. So I’ve got like nothing.”

Leanne Moyer has known Antonio since he lived in Pottstown. Her non-profit, Leanne’s Life Changing Fairies, helps serve meals to the homeless each week.

“What really bothers me with James is what he gets monthly — he couldn’t survive,” she said. “He couldn’t survive getting a house by himself or a car, which is his goal.”

As the Johnson v. Grants Pass decision looms, Moyer said many homeless people in Pottstown are worried about what will happen next.

“The reason why they’re worried is because they don’t know where to go,” she said. “They’re being pushed out, but they don’t know where the next step is. A lot of them don’t have IDs to help them get jobs, or getting them into rehabs.”

Chris, who also wanted his last name kept private, lives at a homeless encampment near Riverfront Park in Pottstown. An abusive relationship, losing his job in landscaping construction and addiction drove him into homelessness four years ago. He and his dog Bane — a black pitbull-lab mix – have been homeless ever since.

He is still unemployed and looking for work, making ends meet by selling scrap parts to get food for himself and his pet.

“I don’t like feeling like I can’t provide for myself for my animal,” he said.

Two people with rakes clean up an encampment in the woods.
Marcus Biddle
State Rep. Joe Ciresi (left) joins Sherman Ellis (right) founder of the Deviators non-profit in a clean-up of an abandoned homelessness encampment in Pottstown.

Since the federal court’s ruling in 2023, Chris and others living in his tent city have not had any run-ins with law enforcement.

“They’ve been pretty pretty relaxed with us,” he said. “They don’t harass us or bother us. They were coming down weekly doing a census and stops, seeing if we were okay.”

He has adjusted to living in his homeless encampment, but frequent flood waters from the Schuylkill River makes life difficult. At roughly 6’4″, he said that flooding can sometimes rise as far up to his knees.

“It sucks because you’re out here, and you already don’t have much,” he said. “The last flood I went down, I put a stick in the ground and by time I put the stick in the ground the water came up six inches.”

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Pottstown mayor Stephanie Henrick said that housing equity and affordability are contributing factors fueling the homelessness crisis in Pottstown.

And while a decision from SCOTUS is pending, Henrick threw her support behind citizens who are currently living unhoused in the Borough.

“I know a lot of people want to criminalize homelessness and weaponize the police department in Pottstown,” she said. “We have much bigger issues than people that are illegally camping in the woods and living out here because of mental health issues, or they lost their jobs.”

Community members and volunteers try to support the people in the encampment in various ways, such as cleaning up the area.

“We got about 150 garbage bags filled up and put on the side of the road for pickup,” said Borough of Bally councilmember Joshua Sloan, who regularly volunteers in the neighborhood.

Last Saturday, Sloan and volunteers with the Deviators, Inc. — a Philadelphia-based nonprofit — helped with a community clean-up and food distribution for unhoused residents of Pottstown.

“The last one was March 30th. We had a much bigger group of about 40 people and we had seven dumpsters with about 30,000 pounds [of trash] cleaned up between the road and the Schuylkill River. It was an old encampment that was abandoned, but the land really needed help,” he said.

Sherman Ellis is the Director of Deviators, Inc. and has recently involved his nonprofit with helping unhoused citizens. This month, his group of volunteers cleaned up an abandoned tent city near the Schuylkill River Trail.

What remained were bikes, tents, clothing, food, furniture and various personal items.

“It saddens me. We come on here and help, then we go back home into our beds and leave them out here,” he said. “We’ve been just stepping over these people like they’re not human beings.”

For Ellis, these efforts are not just about cleaning up the land, but also protecting the dignity of people experiencing homelessness in Pottstown.

“We just want to make them feel like they’re normal,” Ellis said. “They’re not trash. They shouldn’t be thrown away. They’re in a particular situation right now. We don’t know how they got there until you meet each one of them, but it’s a complex issue and we are just trying to help meet them where they’re at.”

Read more from our partners, WHYY.