Whenever an agenda item for a Chapel Hill Town Council meeting provokes four hours of tense discussion, there are obviously some deep-rooted issues involved, and they're not going to be resolved happily with one vote.
The council meeting on May 9, 2011, was one such marathon session. The nonprofit Inter-Faith Council for Social Service had proposed moving its men's shelter services from its old location at 100 W. Rosemary St. downtown to a new facility at 1315 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in the Homestead Park area. (Homeless women are sheltered elsewhere.)
Neighbors of the proposed facility, wearing stickers on their shirts with the slogan "Find a Better Site," came with a PowerPoint presentation that laid out all their concerns. The IFC's transitional program for the homeless would be too close to playgrounds, soccer fields and baseball fields, they argued. The proximity of three preschools and two afterschool programs raised anxieties about homeless sex offenders. Kids walking or biking to the park would have to pass a detox center or a homeless shelter. And so on.
With help from town staff, supporters and concerned neighbors, the IFC had been working on a "Good Neighbor Plan" to allay such fears. As one condition, the new facility would cap the number of emergency occupants at 17 on "white-flag nights," when the temperature dips below 40 degrees.
The plan was devised before Michael Reinke was named the IFC's executive director in July. He wishes that the emergency capacity had been determined by the fire department. The current number is "artificial," in his view—in other words, insufficient to meet the homeless population's need.
Even so, that concession wasn't enough for some neighbors. At the 2011 meeting, one slammed the whole process as a "backroom deal." Then-council member Matt Czajkowski wanted the 17 beds removed altogether, limiting the project to long-term transitional services. But the IFC wouldn't budge, and over neighbors' objections, the council voted 6–2 to approve the IFC's special-use permit.
That qualifies as a happy ending for the IFC. But Reinke thinks it should have been happier.
This feeling nagged at him last week, as Winter Storm Jonas plunged temperatures into the 20s. It's not that the IFC Community House, which opened last September, had to turn anybody away. But the number of emergency drop-ins did rise a bit—from 11 on Wednesday to 13 on Thursday. And Reinke says he has no idea how many people who need emergency accommodations on freezing nights simply aren't getting to the shelter. There used to be more drop-ins on cold nights at the Rosemary Street space, he says.
"Any time you put a barrier to being able to access something, it'll reduce the number of people that'll be able to access it," Reinke says. "It was an agreement we made because we needed to. We couldn't have located the shelter there if we hadn't. I know that may people were really ..." he pauses. "Tensions were pretty raw."
Barriers imposed by that deal include a stipulation that men who need the IFC's services be picked up at the old shelter—now just a community kitchen—and taken to the IFC Community House. They can't just show up at the new location. Neighbors didn't want that.
"It's one more step that people have to make," Reinke says, "and we're concerned that we may be losing people because of it."
Reinke says it's not just the possibility of adverse consequences for Chapel Hill's homeless population—estimated at 129 in the latest count—that irks him. It's the attitude underlying such rules. "Imagine if I said, 'Just because you don't have a car, therefore, you have to be picked up at one location and brought to another location before you could get housing,'" he says. "I don't know that, necessarily, people would think that made a whole lot of sense."