Durham County

As Durham grows, so will homelessness. What are city and county leaders going to do?

Lola Johnson, right, of Urban Ministries records the names of people who are lined up to be assigned a bed at its shelter in Durham in this file photo.
Lola Johnson, right, of Urban Ministries records the names of people who are lined up to be assigned a bed at its shelter in Durham in this file photo. hlynch@newsobserver.com

As Durham's population grows, so too will its need for homelessness services.

In 2017, 1,200 people passed through Durham shelters and transitional housing. Almost 300 people had no housing at all at some point during the year.

The City Council discussed strategy last week with presentations on both affordable housing and homelessness, as it seeks to tie the topics together. On Tuesday, a committee of City Council members and Durham County commissioners heard a similar presentation.

Reginald Johnson, director of the city's Community Development Department, said about 40 percent of people in a shelter may not need to be there if they had diversion assistance and someone to help them.

Community Development is recommending a "coordinated entry" strategy, which refers to the point that people need help and how services are then coordinated to best serve them. Durham has been providing coordinated entry for families and is starting to do it for individuals, too, as required by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The city department's overall strategy includes increased agency coordination, diversion, rapid rehousing and targeting new and existing affordable housing slots to people experiencing homelessness. With coordinated entry, diversion would help people maintain their housing through mediation, case management and small rent and utility assistance. Temporary housing would help those without a place to stay with rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing or other housing programs, like Section 8 vouchers.

Funding sources

Community Development is looking at paying for diversion with federal grant money that previously went to local emergency homelessness groups. That caused alarm in local homelessness agencies, but the City Council has not yet decided to do that.

Council member Charlie Reece said there are hundreds of places in the city budget he'd rather cut than emergency shelter services.

But council member Mark-Anthony Middleton said in order to do the diversion program and fund shelters, "we've got to come up with some cash."

"This isn't a Community Development issue, this is a council issue," Middleton continued. "If we want to keep our funding levels for [agency] partners ... let's do it. That's not a question for [Community Development] to answer, that's a question for us to answer."

Mayor Steve Schewel said the council wants to support Durham shelters in a significant way as they bridge to the new strategy. The funding challenge will come at budget time, he said.

Joining forces

"We've got to do this together," Durham County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs. "One of the biggest problems is case management. We do not really have case management, and that's expensive."

As an elected official, Jacobs said people ask her to help with housing, and handing them a list of contacts is not the same as having a case manager help them directly. "I think case management is huge, but I am excited about the idea of us really coming together on this plan," she said.

Jacobs asked the county and city managers to look at how both entities can coordinate homelessness strategy. It might lead to two separate reports, but it will be presented in a few months, likely at the May Joint City-County Committee meeting.

County Manager Wendell Davis said he and City Manager Tom Bonfield have talked about getting their staffs together to look at shelter needs. "Our ability to resolve many of these issues will take a systemic approach — above and beyond our scope of services right now, and change the dynamic," he said.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563; @dawnbvaughan