Nonprofit seeks to build homeless housing in Burlington Township

Many residents are concerned with the possibility of 60 homeless people entering Burlington Township

A conceptual layout for the affordable housing

Nonprofit organization Citizens Serving the Homeless is looking to build 60 units to house the homeless in Burlington Township. However, it is facing some resistance from residents.

The purchased site is between the Church of the Nazarene and Casamari Italian Restaurant on Sunset Road. While the plan is still in its preliminary phases, CSTH President Madelyn Mears-Sheldon says the lot will include only individual units of approximately 288 square feet, so only singles will be living there.

Citizens Serving the Homeless will locate people to fill the housing units through a referral system. Mears-Sheldon says it receives referrals from agencies, neighbors and churches. All applicants will go through an application process and a background check. Mears-Sheldon says no one under Megan’s Law will be permitted to live in the units.

“They’re going to have to make a certain amount of money, because the rent will be around $600,” Mears-Sheldon said. “We have eligibility criteria.”

She added while there will be criteria other than the ability to pay rent, there are anti-discrimination laws that prevent them from being too strict.

On Jan. 23, Citizens Serving the Homeless held its first meeting at the Church of the Nazarene. The organization addressed the need for housing and listened to concerns from residents, which included safety, lack of transportation and how the housing will affect local businesses.

Constantino LaMarca owns Casamari Italian Restaurant, which will be located directly next to the housing if the plan becomes a project.

“We just feel the way it was presented doesn’t sound like they have a thorough screening process,” LaMarca said. “There are businesses here, there are young employees here, there are thousands of families.”

LaMarca added while he’s not opposed to helping the homeless, he doesn’t feel this is the right location. He added a fellow resident has created a petition to stop the plan in its tracks.

“We’re going to use all our means to make sure that this doesn’t go through,” LaMarca said. “The only way we would feel comfortable with this is if they guarantee that the people coming in here were not criminals or drug addicts or alcoholics,” LaMarca said.

LaMarca says he believes the housing will destroy his business.

“I don’t think it will hurt [the business,] I think it will pretty much put an end to it,” he said. “More so than my customers, my employees won’t feel safe coming here.”

Another concern residents raised was the possibility of the homeless begging on the streets and rooting through dumpsters. CSTH says it plans to keep the residents well-nourished enough so there is no need to do this.

Christie Bricker says she left the meeting feeling none of her questions had been answered.

“The main question that I had and that most everybody had was, №1, what can we expect? What type of people would be staying there? We have children in the neighborhood,” Bricker said. “They never explained what was going to happen via maintenance and upkeep.”

Resident and mother Summer Bartolomei-Perry says she also left feeling confused. While representatives said they sent letters to local residents, Bartolomei-Perry says she never got one.

“I primarily feel that it’s a bad idea location-wise for the homeless people that would be involved,” she said. “There is no sidewalks, it’s not lit, there’s no public transportation.”

Mears-Sheldon says she is aware the closest form of public transportation is about a mile away, but she doesn’t see this as an issue. Many of the residents will be able to make the walk, and she’s hopeful driving volunteers will help with transportation needs for those who can’t. Additionally, Citizens Serving the Homeless plans to propose the implementation of sidewalks for the safety of the housed residents.

According to Mayor Brian Carlin, Citizens Serving the Homeless has not yet proposed anything to council.

“There is no application pending with the zoning board. We have not seen any architectural or engineering plans for the development,” Carlin said. “To maintain our neutrality in it, we have not had any elected officials attend [the meeting.]”

However, Carlin did have a township planner attend the meeting.

Carlin says he thinks Citizens Serving the Homeless may have trouble getting the needed land use variances.

“When you have an application that appears to be like this one where you’re going to require a use variance … sometimes the screening committee will have them ask council to consider rezoning. That’s a tricky task,” Carlin said.

Church of the Nazarene pastor Byron Hannon says given the reality of homelessness, every state, county and township needs to address the issue as it won’t go away on its own.

“We don’t frame the issue as ‘welcoming the homeless’ because they are already here, albeit in the shadows. We frame it as contributing to helping people who have fallen on hard times and who want to be self-supporting and responsible,” Hannon said.

Citizens Serving the Homeless purchased the land from Church of the Nazarene.

“I know there are safety concerns held by many of the community’s residents. This was a question we pursued with Citizens Serving the Homeless in our pre-agreement discussions, and concluded that their approach is very community-conscious,” Hannon said.

Mears-Sheldon says the reason Citizens Serving the Homeless held a meeting is to gain input from the community. The organization wants to go as far as including residents on the committee that will select who resides in the housing.

“We can involve community members right at the governing part of it,” Mears-Sheldon said. “This is the preliminary draft. If there are things in there that the neighbors want to add, we’re certainly opening to listening to that. We want their input — that’s why we came to them first.”

Mears-Sheldon also addressed the concern over residents’ tax dollars paying for the housing, saying she’s not aware of any plans for that to happen.

“There’s a lot of fear of the unknown, and I understand that. That’s why we’re having these meetings — to provide as much facts as we can for [the residents.]”

Mears-Sheldon says if the plan is approved, there will be a manager on site 24/7 as well as social service staff during the day. She added she’s hopeful the organization and the residents will be able to come to an agreement and the residents will embrace the opportunity to help their fellow community members.

“It changes my life every time I become helpful in somebody else’s life,” Mears-Sheldon said.

According to Mears-Sheldon, if the proposal were enacted, it would be the first housing of this type to be implemented in Burlington County.

The next meeting will be on Monday, Feb. 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Church of the Nazarene.