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Assessing the needs of the homeless

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

Morning,” Crister Brady calls out. “Anybody home?”

It’s 4:30 a.m., and a pack of eight visitors, led by Brady, a UNC graduate and soon-to-be medical student, and Emily Clark, a social worker, has arrived at a campsite unannounced.

They’re volunteers with the United Way’s national 100,000 Homes Campaign, organized to place 100,000 homeless people in housing by July 2013. In Orange County, the campaign was co-sponsored by the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness. Volunteers were also out in Wake County.

In the early-morning hours of Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, five teams of volunteers visited camps, cars and alleyways throughout the county, asking the occupants a series of questions to determine their needs – attempting, essentially, to learn the names and faces, and a few words of the stories, of those who remain on the streets through the night.

The group led by Brady and Clark had been assigned Carrboro, and Mayor Mark Chilton was along. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens were out with teams in their own towns.

In some cases, the visitors’ arrival had been prearranged. Advance work was done in the previous days to inform as many folks as possible that a team of surveyors would be stopping by armed with homemade muffins, hot coffee and McDonald’s coupons.

In other cases, it was a matter of following up on tips. A Carrboro police officer and an emergency medical technician accompanied the team as guides.

In all cases, Brady and Clark made certain not to surprise, calling out greetings as the team approached.

The purpose of the visits, Clark said, was to learn who on the streets is in most immediate need of housing and services, assess resources available for particular demographics – those specifically for veterans or for women, for example – and for anyone, and then try to match those needs with the resources.

Survey results were due to be announced Wednesday evening. Once the information is compiled, it will be entered into a database of all surveys done in the area. Those considered to be the most vulnerable – whose health is most at risk from living on the streets – will be given the highest priority for services and housing.

Organizations participating with the Orange County campaign include the OPC Area Program; the Orange County Department of Housing, Human Rights and Community Development; and the Veterans Administration.

According to Orange County homeless program coordinator Jamie Rohe, discussions are also underway with the Triangle Apartment Association.

“What we’re trying to do with this program, to the degree possible, is find private resources, because there’s so little subsidized housing available right now,” Rohe said.
Housing first

For some on the streets, the term “homeless” is an inexact fit.

Just beyond everyday view – beyond residential streets and bike paths; aside graveyards; across ravines; down alleyways; and in parking lots and abandoned houses – you’ll find: bedrolls, sleeping bags and tarps; kit homes, expertly crafted from whatever’s available (discarded doors, woven branches, a patio umbrella); a campsite-cum-homestead, clothes on a line, an ornamental plate adorning a tree, a suitcase tucked away; or, right downtown, a garden, planted by the resident of an adjacent parked car, redolent, when in season, with basil.

These comprise homes for the homeless – in some instances such for more than a few years – and they’re right here in our neighborhood.

“I was surprised not by the number of surveys we completed,” Brady said, “but by how close we all live to those who are living on the streets.”

Some choose this life; but for most, it’s a relentless struggle. The logistics of the street are complex – coping with the elements, hauling propane tanks into wooded encampments, receiving checks and securing valuables.

The 100,000 Homes Campaign is adhering to a “housing-first” model, meaning that those most in need, regardless of other circumstances, are given top priority. This approach, Brady said, “flips the traditional model on its head.”

His experience working with medically vulnerable homeless people has taught him that when housing is tied to other requirements – financial stability or sobriety, for example – it excludes those most at risk of dying on the street.

It’s estimated that there are some 2,000 people living on the streets in the Triangle. According to the United Way, at least 40 people died homeless last year.

“Outreach work always reminds us how close we all are to experiencing homelessness ourselves,” Brady said, “whether because of a missed paycheck, medical issues, or any number of things.”

  1. Kimberly Willardson

    Thank you for your attention to the homeless in our community.