There may be no better reminder that we remain many steps away from solving chronic homelessness than the recent airing of views over the relocation of the Inter-Faith Council Shelter.
We are not all that far along in either understanding homelessness or ending it.
This despite a breakthrough in the creation of a county-wide, comprehensive plan to end this long-running problem. This despite being a leader in the state in the creation of shelters and an innovative transition program. And this despite our communityâ€™s legendary compassion.
Understanding the problem of homelessness has been at the forefront of the recently adopted Orange County 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. The information gathered in the course of drafting that plan has given service providers a useful tool and the public a more accurate picture of the lives of the people on our streets and in our shelters.
As you might guess, it is not a pretty picture. We know that substance abuse and mental illness are common routes to the streets. And we know that the shelter address turns up quite frequently in police reports.
Now, unfortunately, those numbers are coming up in the debate over the relocation of the shelter, being used by opponents of the Homestead location to frighten people who are already concerned with how the move will change their neighborhoods.
At the same time, the discussion shows that we have not gotten far in prying the word â€œpanhandlingâ€ from the word â€œhomeless.â€ After decades of work downtown to explain that there is a difference, the image most people have of a homeless person is still the aggressive spare-changer parked somewhere on the sidewalk of the 100 block of East Franklin Street.
The thought of dozens of these stereotypes milling around Chapel Hillâ€™s northwest side and, specifically, Homestead Park has some people quite worried.
There are certainly legitimate concerns about the hours, policies and operation of the future shelter, but dispelling the myths about who the homeless really are, especially those who have entered the shelter programs, is the first, and evidently a monumental, task for the proponents of the new location.
It should be noted that the shelter at 100 West Rosemary and the one being planned for the former Duke Power property are very different. The new shelter will be much more focused on its core missions of providing shelter for the night â€” that very basic act of human compassion â€” and moving people off the streets and back into a productive life.
The new shelter will not include the IFCâ€™s community kitchen. That function â€” another of those basic acts of human compassion â€” is likely to migrate to Carrboro, where a discussion of when and how is already on a slow boil.
In both cases these are issues that will require a great deal of dialog, patience and realism. As was promised at Monday nightâ€™s council meeting, we are early on in the process and this will be a long conversation. Letâ€™s begin with a realistic understanding of the individuals we seek to assist.
The faith community here came together nearly 50 years ago to provide food and shelter, and this community through good times and bad has stood with it. Over the years, hundreds have volunteered and contributed, and those who have will tell you to a person that the homeless â€” our homeless â€” are much like you or I except that one day the bottom fell out.
As shelter volunteers said at Monday nightâ€™s meeting, most of the men they met there had jobs or were actively looking for work. These are the people who are trying to rebuild their lives. Their situations are fragile and a helping hand could be the difference between hope and despair, success and failure.
As we begin these conversations, remember that.