By the time the Norristown Ministries Inc. religious leaders were ready to turn their focus on the community’s homeless in 1991, they had already successfully helped form these community ministries, all of which are still operating:
- 1982 The Thursday Soup Kitchen now located at St. John’s Episcopal Church building of Norristown.
- 1983 The Men’s Overnight Shelter now located in the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center (CHOC) on the grounds of the Norristown State Hospital.
- 1984 The Norristown Literacy Council, located in First Presbyterian Church building of Norristown.
- 1990 The local chapter of Habitat for Humanity, which is now Habitat for Humanity of Montgomery County.
With that track record behind them, these religious leaders from local Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations (24 in all) partnered with one another to start a day shelter for the poor and homeless in January, 1992. Joining this very diverse group of leaders were 14 additional community organizations – 38 founding partners in all.
Prior to the Center beginning, the poor and homeless of the community, the addicts and mentally ill former patients of the Norristown State Hospital wandered the streets.
They often panhandled for support; slept outside in public places, and asked business owners or employees, public workers, and local pastors to give them money for food or medicine or gas or a utility bill or car repair or clothing or ID or public transportation or anything – they always spun a good story.
The local clergy, bound by biblical principles, often tried to help, but they were not trained as social workers. Neither were their secretaries or sextons. Business owners sought paying customers, not those begging for a handout or trying to scam them. Employees and municipal workers were challenged with every encounter with these persons.
The Center began as a place for these unwanted people to gather, a safe place where they could bring their imperfect lives, their complicated problems, and receive support from persons trained to help them. The Hospitality Center was first located at 21 West Marshall Street in Norristown before moving to its current location (530 Church Street) in 2001.
The Center’s Staff and Volunteers provided (and still provide) shelter, breakfast, lockers, shower, phone, fax, copies, mail, notary, and referrals to Care Colleagues in the community that provided personalized care for individuals.
An added, often unrecognized change as a result of the Center’s existence was the direct benefit to every clergy person, every business owner, every worker in the municipality. Daily encounters with the poor, addicted, and mentally ill members of the community decreased.
The complex issues of poverty, of addictions, of mental health, of homelessness were no longer staring with weary untrusting eyes at those who worked in Norristown as they made their way to work each morning. Those problems still exist, of course – poverty, mental illness and addiction have not relinquished their grip on these community residents.
That reality of keeping the problem more “out of sight” for so many, makes it harder for the Center’s collaborative ministry to be noticed in order to attract the financial support this growing population increasingly needs.