Community residents gathered on January 27th at The ArtsCenter to participate in a community forum on homelessness and housing insecurity across Chapel Hill and Carrboro. The event was first conceived by two local business owners, Eric Knight of Steel String Brewery and Tamara Sanders of The Clean Machine bike shop, wanting to learn from other community members as to what could be done in terms of prevention. The event hosts described how the passionate, caring nature of the community could be leveraged to provide better support. In addition to a facilitated group discussion among residents, there was also a panel of housing and homelessness professionals who provided a snapshot of who was most affected in the community.
Sitting on the panel was the Executive Director at the North Carolina Housing Coalition, Satana Deberry, who explained that although the coalition focuses on housing insecurity and policy issues, the challenge with their work is identifying the homeless who go unseen by couch surfing and staying intermittently with family members. At the time of the meeting, the Town of Carrboro was undergoing their official counts for 2016 where teams of volunteers visited shelters and tent communities to gain an accurate count of who is living without a home. Panelists agreed that the number is a lower estimate when the counting is done in the winter. In 2015, Orange County estimates showed that 101 adults were homeless, in addition to 20 children with families.
Following the panel discussion, participants were asked to split off into smaller groups to discuss their experiences while interacting with homeless individuals in the community. Participants brainstormed ways in which they could be of better service. Almost all of the groups brought up the importance for early intervention for homeless youth, in addition to the role relationship building plays in establishing trust with the individual. Group members shared largely positive interactions with the homeless, however also voiced concerns in striking a balance between enabling versus helping. There was also expressed interest in gathering more data, allowing for a clearer picture of who the homeless are and where they come from.
Many small business and property owners who were attendance expressed a struggle with striking a balance between showing compassion towards someone in need and mitigating bad behavior (such as public intoxication or verbal harassment) that impacts customers or tenants. Maggie West of the Community Empowerment Fund explained that approximately 60% of the homeless population her group serves has a criminal record. This is a major issue when securing stable housing, since many minor offenses carry a stigma far after the offense making it more challenging for the individual to secure a job. Housing for New Hope’s Desmond Frierson stressed that it’s important for residents to discern between the need for a police response to address bad behavior or if another trained professional would be more effective. Frierson explained that if a homeless individual is not exhibiting behavior at risk of endangering themselves or someone else, the complainant should consider contacting a professional who is trained to address conflict, particularly if a mental illness is involved. The United Way offers a 211 number for those who need to contact help in any crisis.
How does your city work to prevent homelessness? What innovative services can cities offer to help support those who are housing insecure? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Rachel Eberhard. Data linked to sources.