Yes In My Backyard

Chapel Hill News
November 4, 2009

Joni Mitchell says you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, but I think there’s an easier way. Just think about people who don’t got what you’ve got.

It’s sure making me appreciate my house these days, as I learn about the Inter-Faith Council’s plans to relocate their homeless shelter from the old municipal building on Rosemary Street, which the town needs back, to a new location on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Last year the IFC sheltered more than 500 men who didn’t have something that I take for granted: a home. The new facility, to be located on UNC-donated land next to the United Church of Chapel Hill, a short walk from where my family lives, will allow the IFC to continue their blessed mission. Unfortunately, a number of my neighbors are trying to stop them.

At the October 19 Chapel Hill Town Council meeting, my wife and two kids and I sat surrounded by several dozen residents standing in unison as their appointed spokespersons pleaded with the town to oppose the IFC plans. Listening to the more emotional expressions, about criminals roving our streets and despoiling nearby woods, you would’ve thought the state was planning to empty its penitentiaries and bus all the inmates to Homestead Park. The fear and stereotyping was palpable.

I sure don’t fault my neighbors for having questions and concerns, and for caring deeply about what’s going on in their part of town. Strong communities everywhere depend on citizens like these. And I was pleased that most of those who spoke in opposition did so cordially and respectfully. But I do hope everyone will take to heart the facts of this matter before making up their minds.

As we all learned at the meeting, the planned 50-bed center is not going to be a flophouse for any ne’er-do-well to drop into as he pleases. Rather, it will be a structured way station from despair to self-sufficiency for homeless men willing to follow house rules and procedures. Men who meet intake requirements and abide by resident agreements will receive housing, food, medical care, job counseling, and other tools for breaking the cycle of homelessness. Registered sex offenders will not be allowed into the program, and meals will be provided only to residents. Men who fail to abide by their agreements will not be turned out onto the street. Rather, they will be transferred to an appropriate facility elsewhere. The IFC distributed information packets filled with information like this, including the history of their search for a new home and why this site is the best of all those considered. Also mentioned in the packet is the HomeStart facility for women and children, located since 1998 on Homestead not a half mile from the new site. I doubt if one in a hundred people who pass that facility even know it’s a homeless shelter.

The most powerful fear at play here seems to be a fear of homeless men themselves. Underlying some of the emotionally laden comments being tossed about, and between the lines of flyers posted on mailboxes in our neighborhood, I sense the rumble of supposition that the inability to afford or find a home makes one a dangerous person. This is particularly disturbing when I recall the IFCs Chris Moran describing the variety of types of men they have served, including veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. How must they feel about this sort of stereotyping? It also makes me think of the man for whom the very street of the proposed site is named, and what his own blessed mission taught us about this sort of prejudgment.

Does the IFC and its supporters need to further educate my neighbors about the Community House program and what we can realistically expect by having it located here? Yes. Should the Chapel Hill police weigh in with their expectations? Sure. And should the IFC and neighborhood representatives follow the advice given by Council Member Mark Kleinschmidt the other night, to sit down “outside the theater” of the council chambers to simply talk? God, yes.

Neighbors, the Inter-Faith Council is all about good. About coming together and doing the right thing. About tackling with bravery and humility the seemingly unsolvable problem of homelessness, a problem whose solution will benefit us all. The IFC has held out their hands to thousands of people less fortunate than we are, helping them to have something we all have. Let’s not send them away. Let’s hear them out, then help them out. And welcome them to their new home.

Published as “Lets Listen, Then Help Out” in the Chapel Hill News on November 4, 2009