Orange County

Changes to homeless shelter test IFC credibility, Chapel Hill council member says

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. tgrubb@newsobserver.com

The director of the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service says there’s a better way to get homeless men off the streets and get them the help they need.

A Chapel Hill Town Council member, however, says she was “floored” after reading about the changes the agency wants to make.

The IFC’s SECU Community House on Homestead Road provides transitional housing. Men who enroll in the program go through three stages at the shelter on the way to self-sufficiency and a more permanent place to live.

The agency now wants to change its model to an emergency shelter that gets people off the street and into more permanent housing as soon as possible. Once in a more stable setting, the IFC would connect the men to services to help them live more independently.

“[The] IFC operates the only shelters in Orange County and has an obligation to serve people regardless of the circumstances by which they find themselves homeless,” director Jackie Jenks said in a news release Wednesday. “[The] IFC doesn’t believe the community should say to them, ‘This is not the place for you.’”

The IFC will hold three community meetings in August and September to explain the “housing first” plan.

The idea first was proposed at community meetings in May, during which neighbors and Chapel Hill Town Council members raised concerns.

Jackie Jenks
Jackie Jenks Leslie Rabine Contributed

Neighbors asked the council to preserve safeguards established when the 52-bed shelter was approved in 2011. In response, Jenks delayed a council report to September and pledged community dialogue over the summer.

The latest information details 26 changes, including giving clients more ways to access the shelter and allowing 17 emergency cots to be used year-round instead of just during inclement weather.

Community House isn’t a true transitional housing program, because residents don’t pay rent or receive in-house services, Jenks said. She noted that the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness has identified emergency shelter as a community need.

A Point-In-Time Count taken in January found 152 people experiencing some form of homelessness in Orange County, including shelter residents, and roughly 39 who were without shelter. Both numbers were the highest reported since 2011, when there were 136 people experiencing homelessness and 33 without any shelter.

Council member Nancy Oates pointed out that 79 people counted said they would never go to the shelter, so changing the model at Community House is not going to end homelessness in Orange County.

“Even after reading through [the release], I don’t see two questions that I had asked Jackie: Why this, and why now?” Oates said in an interview. “She didn’t have an answer for me when I talked with her, and I don’t see an answer in this.”

Smaller changes — moving people more quickly through the program or giving staff new roles — could make a difference without upending the Good Neighbor Plan that addresses shelter operations, safety and community relations, she said.

“This is an award-winning program, and it has helped people tremendously,” Oates said “It’s helped them change their lives, and they’ve given testimony to that at the IFC fundraising dinners, so why they are not wanting to continue what is essentially a Chapel Hill, gold standard program is not clear to me.”

Approval process

The IFC went through a contentious approval process to launch Community House. It opened in 2015, replacing the longtime emergency shelter at 100 E. Rosemary St. downtown.

Stephani Kilpatrick, director of residential services, has said Community House helped 37 men find stable housing from April 2017 to March 2018. Just over 100 men moved out, some of whom are living outdoors or with family or friends, she said.

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The changes being proposed would not require men admitted to the shelter to be sober or have government-issued identification. They would have to submit to a sex offender registry search, verify they are homeless and provide basic personal information. Their legal, health, housing, income and other needs would be assessed only after they are assigned a bed.

Sex offenders would not be allowed to stay, and while a full criminal background check only would be required for a job or housing, Jenks noted procedures for dealing with public drunkenness, illegal drug use, weapons and criminal activity are in place.

“IFC cannot make services contingent upon criminal background checks, as people with criminal backgrounds have a significantly harder time finding housing and employment, thereby increasing the likelihood they will experience homelessness,” Jenks said.

The changes also would allow walk-ins and let residents leave during curfew hours with approval.

Advisory committee

The plan changes the role of the Community House Advisory Committee, established in 2012 to be a liaison between the IFC and its neighbors, and to report regularly to the council and IFC’s Board of Directors.

It is not clear if that committee still meets. The IFC website doesn’t list its members and the last report posted was in September 2017. Jenks did not return an email seeking clarification.

The proposal would require the committee to provide reports and information only when requested and end homelessness workshops and training, an annual open house, and volunteer and work opportunity development. Other groups, including the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, already do this, Jenks said in the release.

Community House needs a modified permit from the council to make the changes.

Oates said the plan not only puts IFC credibility on the line, but also the council’s credibility, because it approved building Community House with the understanding that it would not be a traditional shelter. An open-access emergency shelter won’t help, she said, because many need “carrot-and-stick options” to change their behavior.

“Just to let them continue to spiral downward, but [say] we’ll give you a place to stay while you spiral downward, maybe makes those of us liberals feel better, but it’s not helping anybody,” she said.

Steve Kirschner, who served on the advisory committee in 2011-12, said he hopes the group had time to review the plan before it was released. He had not yet seen the proposed changes.

“I think one of the reasons the center has operated so well so far — I haven’t heard any complaints from neighbors — is some of the safeguards and policies that were put in place as a result of the Good Neighbor Plan, so I’d be disappointed if they changed it too much,” Kirschner said.

What’s next

The IFC will hold three community meetings to talk about plans for Community House, best practices to end homelessness and proposed updates to the shelter’s Good Neighbor Plan.

The meetings will be held at United Church of Chapel Hill, located adjacent to the shelter at 1321 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Thursday, Aug. 30, 7-8:30 p.m., “Low Barrier, Housing-Focused Shelter: What it Means and How it Has Worked in Other Communities,” with Terry Allebaugh, N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness, and IFC staff

Thursday, Sept. 13, 7-8:30 p.m. or Monday, Sept. 24, 6-7:30 p.m., “Homelessness in Orange County: The Data and Our Community’s Response,” with Corey Root, Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, Community Empowerment Fund, Chapel Hill Police Department Crisis Unit and IFC staff

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb

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