The Facts on Homelessness

Nancy E. Oates

OPINION

Guest Column by Nancy E. Oates

I have such high regard for the work that former state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird did while she represented us in the General Assembly that it pained me to read her recent column in The Local Reporter about ending homelessness.

She didn’t check her facts.

For the last two years of my term on the Chapel Hill Town Council, I served on the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, a group composed of service providers, elected officials and law enforcement. Every month, we heard the numbers crunched: How many people entered the homeless “system,” how many exited to housing, how many were diverted from homelessness and how many moved to “inactive” because social service workers had lost touch with them.

When Kinnaird mentions the number of homeless in the county, she may be referring to the Point in Time Count, a HUD requirement that counties tally the number of people living in shelters or transitional housing or are unsheltered on the last Wednesday in January each year. Volunteers go to known homeless camps on that night, and social service agencies poll clients for the following week on where they slept on that January night. The numbers vary widely from year to year, from a low of 80 in 2016 to a high of 152 in 2018. In 2019, the number had dropped to 131 (102 in emergency or transitional housing and 29 unsheltered).

Of course, over-priced housing and under-paid employees lead to people losing their homes. So does untreated mental illness and addictions. We can’t make progress on homelessness without addressing the causes.

Community House, which Kinnaird refers to as “the shelter,” helps men who want to make changes in their lives so they can reintegrate into living independently in a home in the community: Connect them with treatment for mental illness and addictions; find employment or register for disability or other government subsidies; find housing they can afford.

Community House is on property owned by UNC, not land owned by the church next door, as Kinnaird claimed. UNC leases the land to the Town of Chapel Hill for $1 a year, and the town subleases it to IFC. The Good Neighbor Plan allows Community House to become a “no-barrier” shelter (opening its doors to people actively using alcohol or drugs) on nights that are too hot or too cold, which is about two-thirds of the year. The plan does not preclude building other facilities for services to the poor. In fact, Piedmont Health operates a clinic at the facility.

People living in shelters are still homeless. Having more shelter beds does not speed people into permanent housing. As a council member, I successfully pushed for our budget to include money for a housing locator to find landlords who would accept housing vouchers and had affordable units available, after the county declined to fund the position.

Kinnaird mistakenly separates “Rapid Rehousing” from the 10 “gaps” the OCPEH has identified and that tacitly acknowledge homelessness will never be eliminated. Rapid Rehousing is a federal intervention that recommends localities subsidize rent for up to six months and provide support services to rectify problems that led to homelessness in the first place. Fully funding Rapid Rehousing for Orange County would cost just over $1 million. Some of the Penny for Housing already funds the Homelessness Initiative, and the rest goes to Community Home Trust and other affordable housing partners. Some of Chapel Hill’s $10 million affordable housing bond could be used for subsidizing rents to rehouse the homeless. The county also could contribute from its $5 million bond voters passed in 2016.

In her opinion piece, Kinnaird uncharacteristically lobbed some incendiary accusations against her former constituents and other elected officials. To get back to the facts in the Greene Tract discussion, Chapel Hill Town Council heard overwhelming support from constituents, including those most affected by proposed development, for a low-density, low-traffic option.

Current, former and aspiring politicians were the only ones at the meeting favoring high-density development that would put the interests of developers over constituents. For the most part, council sided with the constituents. That the campaign of one aspiring politician was funded almost entirely by developers hints at why the politicians up for election may have advocated for a choice that went against the interests of their constituents.

Another development, the proposed Weavers Grove, would add 219 homes off Sunrise Road, with 94 of them being affordable through Habitat for Humanity. The plan calls for the market-rate homes to occupy prime real estate; the Habitat homes would be built adjacent to the soon-to-be-expanded I-40 in a low-lying area prone to flooding. I would hope someone would speak out against this inequity. We have got to stop shunting the modestly paid into sub-optimal housing and patting ourselves on the back for it.

To paraphrase Kinnaird: Let’s come together to do what we know we can do and do what is right.

Nancy Oates served on the Chapel Hill Town Council for four years. She is the founder of Chapel Hill Watch, a blog at chapelhillwatch.com.

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6 Comments on "The Facts on Homelessness"

  1. Julie McClintock | January 14, 2020 at 7:20 am | Reply

    Good reporting on a complicated issue. Thanks Nancy.

  2. I have always wondered; doesn’t counting in January skew the numbers artificially lower? It always seems as if the numbers increase during the warmer weather which makes me suspect there is a migratory homeless population.

  3. I am neither a current, former, nor aspiring politician. However, I did speak publicly to the board in support of higher affordable housing density on the Greene Tract land. I was not favoring developers over constituents. Nor were the other speakers who spoke in favor of affordable housing. Residents in need of affordable housing in Chapel Hill are indeed constituents.

  4. George Cianciolo | January 15, 2020 at 1:52 pm | Reply

    I think it is quite insulting of Ms. Oates to Habitat of Orange County when she refers to their proposed housing in Weavers Grove as sub-optimal. Even if she is referring to the proximity to I-40, I’m sure there are a number of $400K -600K homes in the adjoining neighborhood of Chandler Green that are as close, if not closer, to the highway. And NCDOT has said that if the highway is expanded out (as opposed to into the median) they will install sound walls if there is increased noise. I find the idea of not doing affordable housing because one is looking out for the best interests of the potential recipients to be somewhat disingenuous.

  5. This article is not reporting, it is opinion. Obscuring the line between the two is a dangerous precedent for this site.

  6. Gay Shetley Bonds | January 19, 2020 at 10:59 am | Reply

    I appreciate the insights provided by Nancy Oates. Her statement, “Habitat homes would be built adjacent to the soon-to-be-expanded I-40 in a low-lying area prone to flooding,” doesn’t appear to be an insult, but rather a point needing further review. We’ve had many problems in Durham and Orange counties caused by flooding of housing and shopping centers located in flood-prone areas. We are capable of being more cautious going forward.

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