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."
The 17-emergency-bed cap also looks unusually prohibitive compared with some of the IFC's Triangle counterparts. The South Wilmington Street Center in Raleigh, for example, can house up to 360 people. Urban Ministries on Durham's Queen Street regularly shelters more than 130 for its programs and has room for five emergency drop-ins.
During a white-flag night, says Bryan Gilmer, director of marketing and development at Urban Ministries, "anybody we can find space for, we let them in to the shelter." And if Urban Ministries has more people than spaces, the overflow is handled by Antioch Baptist Church on Holloway Street or the Durham Rescue Mission. Last week, people needing shelter were directed to those facilities a couple of times.
The IFC has an unwritten agreement with these providers to share emergency clients, if the need ever arises. (They've haven't yet had to do so.)
"I think it's understood among shelters that it's a goal to keep everyone safe," says Frank Lawrence, supervisor of the South Wilmington Street Center in Raleigh.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Michael Reinke
At the South Wilmington Street shelter, the total, packed-to-the-walls sleeping capacity is 360, though its usual number is around 234, Lawrence says. One night last week, the center welcomed an additional 66 men as emergency drop-ins.
That, says Reinke, is the type of attitude he'd like to see more often in Chapel Hill.
"We have some very good folks," he says, "people with very big hearts. But there remains something scary about the word homeless. And people are like, 'OK, well, I want to help them, but just not here.'"
The newly opened IFC Community House offers live-in transitional services to 52 men at a time. Participants are housed at three levels, each step up granting more privacy and privileges. Men in level 1 live in a dormitory and are assessed for placement in a specific program tailored to their needs—addiction counseling, mental health counseling or veterans' programs, for example.
Reinke says the old Rosemary Street space, where homeless men received services for 30 years, was inadequate for running that kind of program. The old building was designed for other purposes.
"At one point, it was a jail," he recalls. "We actually housed people—when we first moved in there—they were sleeping behind bars. It wasn't designed to be a place to get people back on their feet."
James Dunn, who runs food service at the old space—now just a community kitchen—is up to level 3. He counsels folks at level 1 and gets to share a room with just one roommate. He also has his own key.
Dunn says he understands Homestead Park's concerns about neighborhood safety. "But they've also got to understand and turn things around—put yourself on that end of it, and see how you would feel about it?" he says. "You know, it doesn't feel right. If you're the 17th person, and I'm number 18, I can't stay. But here you have a building, you know what I mean? There are rooms upstairs."
On Sunday, after lunch service in the community kitchen, two friends sit at a table and talk about life on Chapel Hill's streets when the weather is harsh. Both stayed at the Community House the night before. They decline to give their full names; they don't want the "homeless" stigma.
One man, who identifies himself as Ken, is 53 years old and has been homeless, on and off, for four years, he says. He describes what it's like for men who, unlike him and his 55-year-old friend Mark, don't make it to the shelter on freezing nights.
They sleep "anywhere, everywhere. They have to find their means."
"They call it a ..." Mark interjects, trying to recall. "What is it?"
"Cat hole," Ken replies. "A cat hole is this, man. It could be behind a building, with a shed over it. It could be an abandoned building. It could be anywhere. Under a house. Anywhere."
Ken says he knows firsthand how the hurdles put up by the Good Neighbor Plan could impede some men from making it to the shelter. "Somebody comes, picks you up at this place at seven o'clock," he says. "You don't be here, you're out of luck."
To Reinke, that's far from ideal, especially on the coldest winter nights.
So far, he says, there have been no complaints from neighbors about the IFC house, which he thinks should open the door—someday—to revisiting the issue. But he knows that, because the original fight was so contentious, that day likely won't come any time soon.
"I think that, long term, we can demonstrate that we are good neighbors," he says, "and that we are operating a well-run facility, that the people we're serving are not scary, they're human beings just like all the rest of us—we all have good days and bad days—then we'd love to go back and say, 'Are there things that we could do to allow us to better serve the population we're trying to address?'"
This article appeared in print with the headline "Iced out"