Orange County

Changes proposed for Chapel Hill homeless shelter raise concern

The 52-bed IFC @ SECU Community House at 1315 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in northern Chapel Hill replaced a longtime shelter at 100 W. Rosemary St. downtown.
The 52-bed IFC @ SECU Community House at 1315 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in northern Chapel Hill replaced a longtime shelter at 100 W. Rosemary St. downtown.

The Inter-Faith Council for Social Service is considering changes at its men’s shelter, IFC @ SECU Community House, that have raised some concerns among neighbors and at least one Town Council member.

Staff members at the only men's homeless shelter in Orange County say the changes would help it better serve the homeless and the community.

The biggest change the agency wants to make is to move from a transitional housing program in which residents advance through a three-stage program to graduate, to making Community House an emergency shelter with the focus on moving men into permanent housing as quickly as possible. In recent years many agencies have adopted a "housing first" that helps people find housing and then provides services to help them meet other needs.

Men currently change beds as they pass through each stage of the IFC's transitional program: the learning stage, the demonstrating stage and the mentor stage. Under the proposed emergency shelter model, each resident would keep a bed for the duration of his stay.

Megan Raymond, program manager for Community House, said at a community meeting Tuesday that the paperwork associated with moving men through each level takes away from the focus of working to help them find their own housing and employment.

The current structure also places everyone at the same level when they come in and forces them all to complete level 1, even though some may already be passed level 1 and won’t benefit from it, said IFC Board Chairwoman Kathleen Herr.

Nancy Oates

Town Council member Nancy Oates said she remembers hearing success stories about the transitional model, and she had concerns about the changes. Some would require changing the special-use permit the council granted the shelter before it opened in 2015.

“Before it comes back to council,” Oates said, “I want to make sure that we’re not doing a disservice by changing something that worked for valued members of our community.”

Council member Hongbin Gu also attended Tuesday’s meeting.

According to Stephani Kilpatrick, the IFC's director of residential services, from April 2017 to March 2018, 37 men in Community House found stable housing and 104 moved out who were either living outside, living with family or friends or IFC doesn’t know where they went.

There are 13 men who have been in the shelter more than a year.

Proposed changes

One of the biggest proposed changes would be to lift the cap on cots where temporary guests stay on cold nights or when the weather makes being outside particularly onerous. Currently that is capped at 17, with 52 beds reserved for accepted residents. The changes would allow IFC to increase or decrease the number of beds and cots as needed.

The staff is also proposing some changes to make it easier to accept men at the shelter, including putting off a full assessment until after intake. There would still be a screening, including checking the sex offender registry, before admission. Currently IFC conducts criminal background checks, but under proposed policy the full criminal background check would be completed as needed.

Also under current policy, prospective residents must call ahead, and those who walk up to the door without calling ahead are turned away. Under the proposed changes, walk-ups could be accepted.

Currently prospective residents must possess a government-issued ID before they are admitted. Under the proposed changes residents could be admitted without ID and IFC staff would assist them with obtaining ID after admission.

The proposed changes would also ease the complete prohibition of alcohol and controlled substances currently in place. Alcohol and substances would still be prohibited on the premises, and the staff would work with residents interested in treatment.

“Not everyone who drinks a beer is addicted,” Kilpatrick said. “So we don’t want to punish someone who just has a beer just because they’re living in a shelter, and their behavior is totally fine.”

Josh Ravitch, who was representing the Larkspur neighborhood, said he had concerns with the large number of changes proposed all at once. As a scientist, he said, he preferred to change one variable at a time.

Neighbors who attended said they had had no problems with the shelter as it is currently operated.

“There’s never been a problem,” Betsy Crittenden said, “never a lockdown.”

Matt Goad: