NEWTOWN TOWNSHIP >> Residents living near a sprawling county-owned farm took their concerns to the county this week after learning about plans to use its farmhouse as a temporary safe house for women and children fleeing human trafficking.
The residents met with the county commissioners along with the District Attorney on Tuesday to learn more about the safe house and to express their concerns.
The residents also attended the Wednesday commissioners meeting where the conversation continued during public comment.
“I completely understand, endorse and support what you’re trying to do,” said Newtown Township resident Warren Keyser, “but the selection of this farm is utterly ridiculous.”
Kathy Keyser accused the commissioners of approving the project in secrecy, an allegation the county denied. “My heart goes out to these women, but there are other buildings, other properties more geared toward this particular endeavor.”
“I don’t think there’s a resident who doesn’t feel for these women, but we didn’t find out about this until last week,” said another neighbor asking about the funding stream, where the women would be coming from and if they would be COVID tested.
Others raised concern about safety, worried that it would draw sex traffickers to their neighborhood and asking who would be paying for the 24 hour a day police protection for the women.
Another spoke to the history of the farm and said the farmhouse deserves “a more dignified use than a shelter. It should be recognized for its historical significance. We just listened to a wonderful presentation by our agricultural preservation program where millions of dollars is being given away, and yet there’s no funding for this farmstead.”
Under a 10 year agreement with the county, the YMCA is leasing the farmhouse from the county for one of its Haven Houses, where women and children fleeing human trafficking are provided with healthcare, education, job training, 24 hour staff support and counseling.
“These are victims,” said Commissioner Bob Harvie. “These are people who have gone through worst things than most of us ever dreamed of going through. And they are now, luckily, out of that system. And they are looking for assistance and support. The YWCA provides all that.”
According to county officials, the Haven House would house no more than five women on a temporary basis.
“They don’t drive anywhere. The YWCA transports them wherever they need to go,” said Harvie. “We are talking about protecting women and helping women. That’s what we’re talking about.”
Cathy Bennett, of the Bucks County Area Agency on Aging and former executive director at NOVA, assured neighbors that human trafficking shelters follow security protocols and there have been no instances of break-ins or extra trafficking occurring in areas where they operate
“Generally these are young women who are from the area and are coming back to the area to receive the services that they so desperately need,” she said.
During the Tuesday discussion, Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia said the District Attorney had noted that in these cases whoever was in charge of these women would just get another woman to take their place.
“It would take way too much effort on their part because there is so much commodity,” said Bennett.
Typically, said Marseglia, it’s just a caseworker who’s there at night. “There’s no police. There’s no guard or anything like that,” she told the residents.
The county protected 150 acre farm is located in a conservation management zone, allowing it to be farmed and its buildings used for a residential use without variances or zoning changes.
According to Director of Operations Kevin Spencer, a tenant who had been leasing the farmhouse ended their lease a little more than a year ago.
“The opportunity came along for this residential program,” he said, adding that the lease was approved by the county in early December.
“Nothing on the exterior of the building has been changed. We did some interior cosmetic work just to clean it up,” he said. “Nothing was demolished or removed from the building - just a general cleanup inside the building.”
There are two other similar shelters in the county, noted Harvie, one of them almost identical to the Newtown Township site.