On Sunday morning, dozens of people lined up against the brick wall outside Raleigh's Oak City Outreach Center, waiting for a lunch of beans, rice, bread, and fruit. Inside, dozens more sat at communal tables, enjoying companionship and food offered to them on weekends, when the city's homeless shelters are closed.
The city has come a long way from the fateful morning in August 2013, when police officers threatened to arrest local pastors serving biscuits and coffee to homeless people in Moore Square. City officials had decided to start enforcing a fifteen-year-old ordinance prohibiting the distribution of food without a permit. The message was clear: the city had a shiny new vision for Moore Square, and the homeless weren't part of it.
Following the subsequent outcry, the situation quickly improved. Raleigh and Wake County convened a task force charged with producing a plan to end homelessness in the county. Its work appears to be bearing fruit. According to point-in-time counts, Raleigh's homeless population has declined significantly, from 1,170 people in 2014, to 904 in 2015, to 818 in January.
And the Oak City Outreach Center, run by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, opened in June 2014. Over the last two years, it has served thousands of meals to the less fortunate.
"The Oak City Outreach Center has been a great resource as the initial [and] temporary solution to address hunger and homelessness in our community," says Shana Overdorf, executive director of the Raleigh-Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness.
But as Raleigh prepares to renovate Moore Square, the center's time in the city-owned warehouse on South Person Street could soon draw to a close.
In a joint effort, the city and Wake County are planning to open a $5 million services center for Raleigh's homeless, a key component of the Raleigh-Wake Partnership's strategy. While a building hasn't yet been secured, the county has evaluated the property adjacent to the South Wilmington Street men's shelter "as a site for a multi-services center and potentially a shelter for homeless women." The one-level brick building and the four acres it sits on, owned by a realty company in Virginia Beach, are worth about $751,000, according to county records.
The new facility, envisioned as the first place people turn to for resources when they find themselves homeless, will take in three hundred people per weekday. It will include a large multipurpose room for weekend food distribution, plus storage and kitchen space. And it will provide restrooms, showers, a laundry facility, a garden, small classrooms, computers, phones, and vending machines for the public to use.
Essentially, Overdorf says, this new facility will follow the same model as the Oak City Outreach Center.
Nothing's final yet—Overdorf says officials are negotiating with the property owner—but that hasn't stopped southeast Raleigh residents from voicing concerns about the impact another homeless services center will have on the largely residential neighborhood that surrounds it, not to mention the southern gateway to downtown, an area slated for redevelopment by the city. They also doubt that the prospective site is big enough for the services the county has proposed, or that the city and county have clear goals about what they want to achieve with the center.
"There were multiple sites evaluated and no explanation given as to why this site was selected, and it seemed to be in conflict with other city plans in terms of economic development in that area," Will Marks, vice chairman of the Central Citizens Advisory Committee, said at a CAC meeting Monday night.
"The plan, when you really look at it, is not going to benefit the people it's supposed to serve," added CAC chairwoman Lonette Williams. "It's just to say we did something, so y'all shut up."
Residents say homeless men from the shelter already loiter during the day and use Chavis Park—which is slated for a $12.5 million revamp—as a public restroom. They also say homeless people break into abandoned houses. They're worried about their own safety, the safety of students at the nearby Shaw and St. Augustine's universities, and the safety of the women who will use the proposed women's shelter, since it will be so close to the men's shelter.
"People feel unsafe now because there are all these strange men hanging around, and they have nothing to do," says Williams. "There are people all over the place when the shelter closes, wandering the neighborhoods, hiding their belongings in people's yards. You're going to create another Moore Square at Chavis if you create a site attracting all these homeless people."
While the homeless are often stigmatized, a 2014 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that chronically homeless people do "tend to have high rates of criminal justice involvement." And though their crimes may be largely nuisance offenses like panhandling, the study found that most chronically homeless people have serious mental illnesses, substance abuse disorders, and other disabilities.
Williams suggests using a city- or county-owned property on Capital Boulevard for the new center, perhaps an abandoned hotel about four miles north of downtown. Homeless services, she points out, already exist on Capital: the Wake Salvation Army is there, as is the Helen Wright women's shelter and the nonprofit Urban Ministries. The Greyhound bus station moved out to Capital two years ago, providing access to transportation. Most important, there are fewer residential neighborhoods and more businesses where the homeless could potentially find work.
But there's a problem: Williams says Wake County housing program manager Annemarie Maiorano told her a site on Capital would cost too much. (Maiorano did not respond to messages by press time).
"The county and city need to truly invest in the homeless population and in people in need in a meaningful way, and not just sticking them here to try to keep them out of Moore Square," Williams says.
Overdorf, however, argues that the Wilmington Street site makes sense because of its proximity to downtown. A condition of the new site, set by the task force back in 2013, was that it would be located within two miles of the downtown transit station, which could be difficult to achieve on Capital. "We would not want this beautiful new building to be in a location that's not accessible to the people who need to use the services it will offer," Overdorf says.
Frank Lawrence, the supervisor of the South Wilmington Street men's shelter, said at the CAC meeting that people who want to stay there now have to earn their beds by undergoing employment training and applying for jobs. The shelter also offers programs to keep the men engaged during the day, and those programs have helped them find permanent housing, he told CAC members.
"We don't want our men being a nuisance and doing things that are not representative of good citizenship in the community," Lawrence said. "We want to help with that."
The proposal goes back before the CAC in July, where it will be a hard sell. But in the end, if the city and county move forward with the center, the residents will be unable to stop them.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Gimme Shelter"