Why can’t we solve our homeless problem?


Guest Column by Ellie Kinnaird

Our community has a severe shortage of affordable rental housing as well as a large homeless population — one of the largest in the state in proportion to our population. There were 153 homeless people in Orange County in 2018, a 13-percent increase from 2017!

Even though we have solutions to these seemingly intractable problems, they are still with us. Why?

Because it is essentially a political problem. To state it baldly, it is a NIMBY problem.
We all talk a good game, but when the chips are down, no one seems to want low-income or formerly homeless living next to them.

Let’s examine the history.

Let’s start with the homeless shelter on MLK Blvd. When it was proposed, the neighbors objected to placing the shelter on the property of the United Church because they were already “burdened” with Freedom House, the Women’s Shelter and the Southern Human Services Building.

They argued that the proposed facility was too close to playgrounds, soccer fields and baseball fields, three preschools and two afterschool programs, raising anxieties, among other things, about homeless sex offenders. (Convicted sex offenders cannot be within 300 feet of any place where children are by law.)

To meet those challenges, the town and church worked out a “Good Neighbor Plan” that prohibits any change from the current shelter program and limits the number of people at the shelter on cold nights. Unfortunately, those terms prohibit any change in the future in the function of the shelter or building any other facilities that provide services to poor (predominately black) people in the area.

That agreement is now obstructing a change of the shelter from long-term transition to a more effective short-term shelter that gets the homeless into permanent housing more quickly.

Another example: a Habit For Humanity project called Weaver Grove has met strong neighborhood resistance such that the first proposal forced Habitat to redraw and scale down its plan, thus housing fewer people.

When Habitat came back with that proposal, there was the neighborhood again finding any excuse possible to persuade the town to abandon the project. First it was storm water run-off onto their property. That was solved, so another excuse was raised: traffic. Neighbors complained there was already a traffic problem with crowded roads during commuting hours.

Let’s analyze that: there are 200 homes in this neighborhood, most likely with two cars per household and one for the 16-year-old to drive to school. Few Habitat people own a car, relying instead on the bus system. So, who is creating the traffic problem? Not Habitat folks. But certainly those three cars commuting from the neighborhood every day. In addition, many Habitat residents work evening and night shifts, further reducing commuting cars on Weaver Dairy and Sunrise Roads.

Then there is the Greene Tract, which has lain fallow for 30 years because it lies in three jurisdictions that couldn’t come together with a plan to develop it — until this year. Sixty-seven acres out of 164 acres were proposed for affordable housing that would go a long way to solve our housing crisis. But it was not to be.

Orange County and Carrboro agreed to the plan and after all those years and hard negotiations, Chapel Hill at the last minute rejected the agreement in favor of an alternative to be decided at some time in the future. Apparently 30 years is not enough time.

What happened? All those people who enjoyed walking and mountain biking in the beautiful forest they considered to be their own personal space didn’t want to relinquish that luxury and sabotaged the plan, even, apparently at the expense of housing for those less fortunate.

There was a great deal of anger that night at that hearing, and much discouragement. Starting over from a good plan and not knowing how or when it will be solved was heart-breaking and a betrayal of leadership. Can we not relinquish a walk in the woods so a homeless child doesn’t spend the night sleeping in the back seat of a car?

We also know how to solve the homeless problem, according to the Partnership To End Homelessness. The program is called “Rapid Rehousing” and the organization has identified what it would take to be successful.

There are 10 “gaps” that, if filled, can eliminate the homeless population in Orange County. The cost in the jurisdiction’s budgets is proportionally not that high. The proposals range from income-based rental units to 24-hour bathrooms to memorial service funds to a day center with services. Funding is available through the dedicated penny on the tax dollar from Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County.

So how many more years until we realize we can house all the people in our towns and county? And how many more years until we realize that what we have is not a homeless problem, but a political will problem?

Let’s come together to do what is right and what we know we can do.

Ellie Kinnaird served as a state senator for Orange County for 16 years. She is also a former mayor of Carrboro. 

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4 Comments on "Why can’t we solve our homeless problem?"

  1. Alyson Bell Scoltock | January 7, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Reply

    Excellent points. We are all guilty of wanting the town to stay exactly as is, especially if we can afford to live in the nice neighborhoods.

  2. Some revisionist history here with MLK. Read the background and history of this proposal to move the shelter away from UNC’s University square project at http://www.abettersite.org University Square and the land donation for the homeless shelter move was done at the same time. The NIMBYs here are UNC and Aaron Nelson.

    IFC said that they were doing a transitional shelter that would be more appropriate out of downtown. The community discussion was that a low barrier shelter would be more appropriate downtown, but that this was not ever to be a low barrier shelter except for a limited number of men for a limited time until a low barrier shelter in another location was to be constructed.

    The new use that IFC is touting is a bait and switch 100% renege on every promise made at that time about the facility.

    It is clear that the messaging above came from current IFC leadership because they remain under the false impression that the GNP limits their use. In fact, it is their own representations in the SUP that govern the use of the property that prevents the change.

    Let’s please stop the revisionist history. Anyone who wants to see what was promised can watch the hearings and read the documents on the town website.

  3. Apparently Ms. Kinkaid is unaware of current developments. Meetings have been been held with the neighborhoods surrounding the Habitat property. Yes the terrain poses serious stormwater challenges for the already inundated communities downhill. Yet, much with the approval of those surrounding communities, habitat plans to construct a stormwater system that exceeds the current standards. The communities also requested that the less expensive homes not be placed so close to the back of the property, next to I-40s noise and pollution. At this point Habitat is trying to find an additional funding source so that, with a few minor modifications, that project can go forward.

    The Greene Tract is on track. The existing timeline has not been changed. The requested study to determine the type and quantity of housing that the land can support, and where it can be placed is a no brainer–as is respecting the wishes of the surrounding communities that will be impacted by the development.

    If Ms. Kinkaid is so concerned about affordable housing, I would suggest that Orange County, has much more land–and less expensive land–on which such housing can be built. Using county owned land, working with non-profit and socially responsible developers, reducing required lot size, building townhomes at a much wider number of price points than currently offered, and building some tiny homes are policies for which she should be advocating.

  4. Errors in Ellie’s column:

    1) 100% of the so-called “Good Neighbor Plan” (GNP) was written by IFC and not by the town or UCC (more below)

    2) Our state senator should know that the shelter is built on state owned land, and not UCC property.

    3) § 14-208.16 imposes a 1,000 foot residential rule for sex offenders, which is more relevant than the 300 foot presence boundary mentioned in the article. https://www.ncleg.net/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/HTML/ByArticle/Chapter_14/Article_27A.html


    More details on item 1 – The GNP Fallacy:

    The “Good Neighbor Plan” (GNP) is misrepresented in the article because the GNP was 100% written by IFC. The town and church did NOT write the GNP as stated in the article.

    You can read all about the GNP stacked committee, IFC control over the document, the fact that the committee never saw nor voted on the document before IFC submitted the GNP to the town, denied collaborative editing requests, etc. starting on page 29 of http://trk.as/ABettersiteFinalReport

    Thus, the premise that the will of the town and church was somehow imposed on IFC is preposterous since IFC wrote the GNP.

    It is IFC’s own Special Use Permit (SUP) application, IFC representations, and IFC promises made during the SUP hearings which prohibits a low barrier shelter at 1315 MLK, not the GNP. IFC would have to seek a major modification with new committee reviews and hearings to alter the use of the site. This was explained multiple times to IFC in their public meetings as well as in private meetings.

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