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Middle Adopts Ordinance Banning Temporary Structures

Rio Grande resident Walt Belles supports the ordinance.
Vince Conti

Rio Grande resident Walt Belles supports the ordinance.

By Vince Conti

COURT HOUSE – Following a long and spirited public hearing, June 19, Middle Township’s governing body unanimously adopted an ordinance banning temporary structures.  

It was no secret that the ordinance was seen as a tool for the township to deal with homeless encampments in Rio Grande. 

A crowd of about 45 to 50 residents showed up for the meeting, with both sides of the issue represented. 

Even though the ordinance applies to a land area of over 70 square miles, the focus of discussion was the less than 3 square mile Rio Grande community at the southern edge of the township. 

The expectation voiced by some at the meeting was that the ordinance approval would be followed by a sweep of the homeless encampments in wooded areas of Rio Grande.   

The public hearing presented very different perspectives on homelessness in the community that serves as a principal retail hub for the township. 

For some like Walt Belles, who said he grew up in Rio Grande and now raises a family there, action is needed to combat a clear and undeniable criminal element in the encampments.  

“Criminals are coming down here from New York and Philadelphia,” Belles said.  

“This is a community going downhill fast,” he added. 

Advocates for the encampments acknowledged that a certain amount of crime and illicit drug use can be traced to the community’s homeless, but they reject the tendency to characterize the homeless population by the actions of some.  

The basic argument used repeatedly during the discussion was “where do the homeless go” if the encampments are closed down? 

For everyone that encouraged the township to deal with the problems of crime, drug abuse, and unsanitary conditions, there were those who preached compassion and a greater investment in the homeless problem.  

“Let us not further humble the downtrodden,” said Sam Kelly, of Court House. 

James Morris, self-described as unhoused in Rio Grande, argued that people must sleep somewhere. He spoke of a county with no homeless shelter and limited facilities for housing the homeless. 

The ordinance contains penalties for violation that can rise to $2,000. Chris South, a Rio Grande resident, warned that the penalties, even ones as low as $20 rather than $2,000, would be difficult for many in the homeless encampment to pay.  

With lack of payment, South cautioned, the ordinance could lead to mushrooming problems of added charges and more involvement with law enforcement and the courts. 

Denise South, executive director of Cape Hope, said the county could have headed off this problem years ago when advocates urged the creation of a “community care center.”  

That moment has passed when we could head off the expanded problems we now face, she argued.  

“This is a whole new ballgame,” she added.  

Denise South supported the ordinance as a “step in the right direction.” 

Calls for adhering to biblical directives that necessitate showing mercy and extending a helping hand were mixed with statements about the urgency for dealing with the problems.  

“Never had we had problems like we have now,” said one woman who self-described as a 50-year resident of the community. 

The population of the homeless in the county, according to the annual Point-in-Time survey in January 2022, was 119. The number is not an accurate headcount since some will avoid being counted, but it provides a sense of the scope of the problem in the county. The survey results for the 2023 count have not yet been released. 

Mayor Timothy Donohue said, “The brunt of the homeless problem in Cape May County resides in our town.”  

He called the problem of homelessness a national one with a solution well beyond the resources of the township. 

For Donohue, there is a need to balance the needs of the homeless with the rights of property owners and businesses. Donohue pointed to the lack of sanitary facilities in the encampments, the dangers of fire, and the mounds of trash. He said the township has an obligation to public health laws. 

We need a mechanism to clean this up, Donohue said, adding, “It is not something we can ignore.” 

Jim Chew, an advocate for the homeless, repeated the central question posed by those opposed to the ordinance.  

“When this passes, where do they go,” Chew asked. 

For Donohue, that is an issue to be wrestled with, but not a reason to ignore the need for township action to a growing problem. 

Speaking of the township, Donohue said, “We do the best we can on a daily basis.”  

ED. NOTE: Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald. His comments at the meeting are those of a resident of Middle Township and not as a representative of the Herald.  

Contact the author, Vince Conti, at vconti@cmcherald.com. 

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