In October 2013, Shana Overdorf stepped into her role as the executive director of the Raleigh-Wake Partnership to End Homelessness in the middle of a crisis. The Raleigh Police Department was in a standoff with volunteers who tried to feed homeless people in Moore Square Park on weekends, claiming they violated a years-old ordinance prohibiting food distribution without a permit.
Overdorf, on day one, walked right into a feud that had made national headlines. On day two, she was sitting in a community meeting with 150 animated stakeholders in the building across the street from the park, discussing long and short-term solutions for the problem.
Talk about hitting the ground running.
In the more than four years since Overdorf assumed leadership of the partnership, which works to end and prevent local homelessness through a range of projects and collaborations with other agencies, she has helped effect a sea change within the organization and has watched the distinct needs of the population she serves evolve.
Last Thursday, Overdorf said goodbye to the partnership. She's not quite sure what's next—she's going to take a bit of a breather for now, she says—but she shared with the INDY some observations about her time in this field and the challenges that remain for Raleigh's disadvantaged, including access to affordable housing and a living wage.
First, the positives. Overdorf says she's proud to have overseen the establishment of the Oak City Outreach Center. a thirty-two-hundred-square-foot food-distribution center across the street from Moore Square that will celebrate its fourth anniversary this summer and provides food, hygiene kits, and other services to residents who are struggling with homelessness or housing instability. Since the center opened in 2014, it has distributed more than 250,000 meals to community members and currently serves about three hundred people every weekend.
"It's one of those things that it's hard to imagine life before the center, because of how much we are able to do in that physical space right now," says Overdorf. "That, hands down, will be one of the biggest milestones of my life."
Another project in the works, a multiservice center slated to open in February, will provide streamlined access to countywide homeless services: food, showers, housing resources, a computer lab, and medical care. The idea is to reduce the amount of time a person in the middle of a crisis might have to spend going from agency to agency, retelling his or her story multiple times, Overdorf explains.
"It's just more of a one-stop shop to simplify, to make it easier for people who are in need to get what they need quickly, without having to take seven buses across four weeks, missing work, and finding childcare," she says. "The beauty of this building is that you tell your story one time. And once you've told your story that one time, that person is then responsible for helping connect you to all the things that you need and helping to prioritize your priorities."
But difficulties remain—including, most urgently, a need for affordable housing.
During her tenure at the partnership, Overdorf says one development in particular struck the community like a "mini-earthquake": the redevelopment of affordable housing complexes like The Palms and Forest Hills in Raleigh into upscale apartments that displaced low-income residents.
"That really has impacted the ability for us to house people who were next in line," she says. "Because we're trying to help people who are being displaced. There's just not enough housing inventory to go around."
The lack of affordable-housing options has brought to light a pretty shocking trend. Overdorf estimates that about 45 percent of the people the partnership serves have full-time jobs but don't have a permanent place to stay. Instead, she says, there are full-time workers seeking refuge in emergency overnight shelters.
"They're not supposed to be in [emergency] housing," she says. "But we don't have housing for folks to move to, and we have people who are working who still can't afford to live in that housing. And that's just kind of the cycle we're in right now."