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  • Writer's pictureDelaney Smith

Town council addresses public spaces ordinance

HAMMONTON—At the special town council meeting on Sept. 11, council members opened public discussion to a new general ordinance that would make sleeping or camping in public spaces illegal.

First introduced at the town council meeting on Aug. 28, ordinance #013-2023 would change the law to make sleeping in any public area, including benches, parks and streets, a prosecutable offense. Chief of Police Kevin Friel said in the Aug. 28 meeting that police officers would offer resources and support to any homeless residents that they are called for, going so far as to offer them transportation to shelters and other facilities.

Mayor Stephen DiDonato said that the ordinance is the first step in combatting the issue of homelessness in Hammonton. It gives the police the power to enforce laws against loitering and curb the amount of people who are sleeping in the street.

“What it stops is somebody that appears to be camping without a home and has a lot of belongings there,” DiDonato said. “The chief, men and women are going to have to make a determination and talk to them and try to offer them help also.”

Residents say that the ordinance isn’t enough. Several residents came forward to tell stories about how they consistently felt unsafe in the town, how the homeless residents make them fear for their children or how they worry it will impact their businesses.

Hammonton resident Stacey Cornelius told a story about how she witnessed police being called on homeless residents two times in one day: once in front of her gym, and once at her place of employment.

“I have kids in this town. I moved back here from Orlando because I loved Hammonton as a family community,” she said. “I love this town. I love the parades, I love the egg drop, I love the Touch a Truck, I love it all. I bring my kids to all of it. But if I don’t feel safe in the streets, nobody is going to come to any of these events.”

Beverly Cornelius, another resident, came forward with her own concerns. She owns Salon A’vanti and told a story about a homeless man who sleeps on the front step of her business every night. According to her, the man sleeps and sells drugs there.

“It’s a little bit harrowing,” she said. “I’m not from around here, so for me it just feels like I’m in a rougher town.”

Historical Society of Hammonton (HSH) President Greg White said that there is a man living in Veterans Memorial Park, outside of the museum. The man sleeps on the bench and talks to himself. White said that the image can deter people from visiting the HSH museum.

“We’d like to have people come to the museum,” White said. “We’d like to see people be able to look at the monuments and things. But it does present a scary thing for a lot of people.”

According to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, over a million people experience homelessness at some point during a year. About 40 percent of those people experience unsheltered homelessness, meaning that they sleep or live in places like sidewalks, cars or tents.

The U.S. Census estimated in 2021 that about 10.7 percent of all residents of Hammonton are living in poverty. About 11.6 percent of all Americans lived in poverty in 2021. The closest shelters to Hammonton are in Vineland and Atlantic City.

“The town’s willing to offer a bus ticket. We want to try to help them [people experiencing homelessness],” DiDonato said. “This way, maybe they have a chance of improving their life also.”

Tiffany Travia, the pastor at the First United Methodist Church of Hammonton, reminded everyone that the people who sleep outside can be scary, but they are people. She urged residents to humanize them and remember that they have names.

“I understand that sometimes these people are scary. I get it,” she said. “At the end of the day, they are human beings and I hate the fact that we talk about the homeless like they’re a ‘them.’ Like they’re an issue to be dealt with.”

Friel made it clear that under this new ordinance, any homeless person that the police are called on would be offered resources and a chance to better their lives before they’re taken into custody, if they are taken into custody.

DiDonato also urged residents to remember that this is not just an issue in Hammonton and that states all over the country face a similar homelessness crisis.

Councilman Tom Gribbin created a new council in the Town of Hammonton designed to address issues involving homelessness with the passage of ordinance #013-2023. DiDonato urged residents to call him at (609) 517-6324 if they want to be a part of that new council.

“There are some people in Hammonton who want to remove the homeless issue and there are some people in Hammonton who want to work with them, to make them get back and somehow come back to society,” DiDonato said. “We want people from both sides of the fence.”

The new ordinance will take full effect on Oct. 1 after a 20-day estoppel.


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