An interfaith coalition of area residents is asking the Princeton Council to turn the former Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad properties into a community center that will serve vulnerable people. Residents suggested that the center become the home of Corner House, as well as the town’s health and human services departments.
The Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad building is vacant. One house on Clearview Avenue is vacant, and Princeton University students who are members of the rescue squad are living in the other house. The properties are now owned by the municipality. Instead of selling the properties, which was proposed by one council member, or using them for some other purpose, the coalition wants the town to use the properties for human services-related services and housing for the homeless.
Princeton Council President Leticia Fraga read a letter regarding the proposal at the council’s March 22 public meeting. She said the letter was signed by more than 179 people. Some people who signed the letter are members of the municipality’s human services commission, but Fraga said the human services commission members signed the letter as individuals, and not as representatives of the commission.
People who have been working to support vulnerable residents said in the letter that they are frustrated by what they described as a patchwork of services that do not sufficiently address the real needs of vulnerable people in the Princeton community. “Despite being a world-famous town of plenty, we have neighbors who occupy the margins of society. In many cases, these neighbors don’t know where to go and are often recycled through a futile circuit of siloed agencies that fail to provide effective interventions,” the coalition wrote in a statement that was read by Fraga. “Too often, we send these vulnerable neighbors elsewhere to places like Trenton that are saturated with many of the issues that Princeton and similar communities export their way. We the undersigned know that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can and must do more for these vulnerable Princetonians whose ages span from infant to senior. To that end, we advocate for the creation of an innovative Princeton Community Center or PCC that combines services that will effectively address the needs of these Princetonians in a respectful, holistic, and coordinated manner.”
Coalition members envision the site as a hub that would have a dedicated staff, social workers, and community educators funded by the municipality. The center would be open during convenient hours, including evenings and weekends, and would be a welcoming place for all Princeton residents. For those who need it, the center would adopt a case management protocol and provide a centralized place for services and a “warm handover” to the appropriate agencies after facilitating appointments or connections to staff members. The municipality would partner with various agencies and faith-based groups to provide resources to people. Services could include: Grades K-12 tutoring, classes in computer and financial literacy, classes in cooking and nutrition, GED and ESL courses, employment advocacy and training, emergency housing support services, a community garden and environmental education space, meeting places for support groups, and screening and intake services.
Advocates said the former rescue squad building and the two homes next to it are situated in a strategic location that is walkable and is close to bike lanes, public transportation, laundry facilities and grocery shopping at the Princeton Shopping Center. They said the properties would require very little work to repurpose them, allowing the center to start operating within a short period of time until a more permanent and larger location is built.
“While the sale of these properties was briefly brought up during the introduction of the 2021 municipal budget, we believe such action is not necessary and the misguided waste of a strategically-located property,” reads the group’s statement. “It’s worth remembering that the pandemic, which has exposed and exacerbated inequities in our community, is not over. Indeed we believe things make it worse before they get better. With this in mind, we need to understand returning to business as usual will monumentally fail the most vulnerable among us. The council has the opportunity to commit to make history and raise the quality of life for all Princetonians by supporting the vision of this community center by first reserving the block 7301 properties and subsequently by working together with the coalition.”
Resident Maria Juega voiced her support for the center during public comment and said a community center has been part of the town’s master plan “forever.” She said seeking a potential site was added to the master plan for the town as a priority in 1996. She invited the council to have a member be part of a task force to make the center a reality.
Veronica Olivares-Weber, the chair of the town’s human services commission, said the community center would offer other benefits to residents that were not mentioned in the letter from the coalition, such as keeping teens safe, providing a meeting space for people, and connecting people with services from other organizations. “This will keep our youth occupied with other things,” she said, adding that the center would help people in the Princeton community who are struggling.