Quick notes on this evening’s final IFC Community House public meeting prior to the IFC submitting a SUP (special use permit) to Town Council.

IFC is the Inter-Faith Council, a 501c3 non-profit, has provided a broad range of social services (list) over the last few decades, many of which, like emergency housing, are the really the responsibility of Orange County and other governmental bodies.

Our community is blessed to have such a caring and strongly supported organization as the IFC working on our behalf.

As of 7:45pm, 83 members of the public and about a dozen IFC staff, board members and support staff.

Council members attending: Laurin, Matt, Jim.

Previous attendees and other “usual suspects” : Mark Peters, Fred Black, Josh Gurlitz, Terri Buckner, Tim and Tina Coyne-Smith.

Phil Boyle, facilitator: “this is not a public meeting this is a community meeting that the public is invited to…”

Woman in front row: “What about taxes?” Phil: ” This isn’t a government meeting, you need to take taxes up with the Council.”

The process for the meeting seems a bit strained – too much overhead – too much reading of the riot act and not enough time allocated for interaction, question/answer and group responses.

IFC’s Rebecca McCullough. Community House will serve 52 men – veterans, substance abusers, people out of their home because of economic downturn.

There will be no mingling of 17 emergency/52 community program men. Separated physically: 1st floor emergency and 2nd floor program.

Emergency facility users screened at food kitchen- shuttled back and forth at night and back to the kitchen the next morning.

Program is about integrating the folks into our community.

As of 8:15pm the number of participants up to 89.

John IFC Board – looking for a site for over a decade – looked at several dozen sites – IFC even looked at Realtor listings. Some involvement by Carrboro, Orange County, Chapel Hill.

Mayor Foy asked staff to do a search – Duke Energy site percolated to top. When UNC purchased the property the town asked for a parcel and UNC granted it. [CW: this isn't my recollection of the timeline. Who did Foy talk to at UNC and when is a point of contention and feeds into the feeling that this was a fait accompli].

Criteria for sites included access to transportation, access to jobs, access to social and medical support services, enough property for facility and setback from neighbors, proper zoning.

Other sites considered:

1) End of Meritt Mill below Lincoln Center. Straddles two jurisdictions – “imagine how difficult it would be to go through [two jurisdictions] approval process” – transportation a problem as bus doesn’t stop there often.

2) Chapel Hill Town Cemetery between Legion Road and 15-501 – big gully in center of site – problem pulling in sanitary sewer – problematic physically to build on with the existing topology

3) Millhouse Road – between Eubanks Rd. and Town Operations Center – west of railroad tracks – 1/2 mile walk to nearest bus stop [CW: Town's expensive bus barn right across the road] – crossing RR tracks an expensive proposition – pulling sanitary sewer/creating RR crossing impediments [CW: urban services boundary a possible issue]

4) Purfoy Rd. off of Rogers Rd. – intermittent stream front of property – with required setback not sufficient space for desired facility – transportation and access to services not as good

5) Hillsborough St. – Existing sorority building [CW: think it's finally sold after several years on the market] – too big for IFC needs – required too much remodeling on first floor as it was currently chopped up into individual rooms – larger than needed, expensive to maintain

6) Southern Human Services Center Homestead Rd. – where old homestead used to be – tried to negotiate with Orange County but wasn’t very tractable – push-back from Seymour Senior Center [CW: to put it mildly].

Pluses of current site: zoned appropriately, FREE land, meets transportation requirements, access to support services/jobs/supports HomeStart program located nearby with planned on-site medical services. Other criteria – Doesn’t abut neighborhoods but does abut a church that is a strong supporter of the IFC program.

Tina Coyne-Smith, one of the local neighborhood leaders who has led the charge against siting the facility on Homestead Rd. yells out – “What about the Police Station John?” The facilitator jumps on her – “no questions!”

[CW: more on Police Station site on MLK, Jr. later].

Chris Moran, IFC Director, steps up with some fresh statistics on “white flag” nights (when the emergency shelter was used to house folks because of rain, cold or other intolerable living conditions).

197 nights the Rosemary/Columbia St. facility was used to house people in 2009. The highest number clients 25, lowest 1, average 5 clients per white flag night. [CW: 25 exceeds the 17 limit at the new facility and exceeded the allowable number of clients under the local ordinance which was recently changed]

563 “floor nights” ( ?? I assume floor night is 1 person per floor spot) – 116 unique clients served with 1 person using emergency housing 37 nights to 1 person using it 1 night.

Chris said that they have a volunteer who has a background in evaluating crime statistics who is analyzing Chapel Hill crime stats to see what kind of criminal activity and the type of criminal activity associated with IFC’s current operations They are also evaluating crime in the proposed site’s nearby neighborhoods to establish a baseline.

[CW: I asked Chris if these statistics along with the underlying data will be posted online at the IFC website and he said they will. FAQ is already there.]

After the IFC Board presentations, folks were separated into 12 smaller groups to discuss concerns, ask questions (which will be followed up and answered as best as possible here), and to suggest ways to communicate more effectively with the neighborhoods and wider community.

My group had Tim Coyne-Smith,a neighborhood representative opposed to the current siting, three IFC/HomeStart volunteers, the former president of the IFC, a lurker and myself.

Tim Coyne-Smith expressed his continuing concern that there was no public criteria. He suggests that the community and IFC must collaborate on siting Community House and this current issue opens up an opportunity to also discuss siting of social services, the density of social services with “at-risk” populations, whether there should be LUMO (land-use ordinances) restrictions on siting of facilities (which some NC communities have).

Tim also brings up the police site – why it wasn’t pursued. Ann, the previous President of IFC said that during her tenure the police station site on MLK, Jr. was never considered.

My understanding was that town staff eliminated the police station site because of technical issues including size of planned facility, access to the site, wedging Community House onto the police property without affecting operations, etc. If the Town was to move the police station – as former Mayor Foy imprudently proposed last Spring – then the current facility – which is suffering from years of structural and design issues – would require some rather expensive remodeling to be used for something new.

Tim said he would be more comfortable if the process was restarted with a public, transparent process that all of the community could craft and agree upon.

IFC, I believe, was ill-served by the lack of such transparency on behalf of former Mayor Foy. That said, they’re doing their darnedest to get as much information out to the public as possible, to integrate the comments received during these community outreach events into their planning (they’ve already changed their previous plans – including screening and other ameliorations).

Laura, a UNC student and IFC volunteer at the HomeStart women’s program said she has never seen misconduct there, that it is quiet, calm – and as a transitional program – moving women through from dependence to independence, it’s a good model.

Tim responds that a men’s population is distinctly different – that %80 of violent crime perpetrated by homeless people is by men – which makes this a distinctly different concern than the existing HomeStart program.

It’s apparent that the 17 emergency beds is a real sticking point and many of my concerns have to do with the logistics of screening those 17 clients, transporting them, maintaining their security and that of the neighborhood.

The suggestion to use what will be the new food facility in Carrboro as both a cafeteria and emergency housing, I believe, has some merit. This dual-use is quite common elsewhere.

Both Ann and Rainey, an IFC volunteer, reflected on my suggestion to have a dual-use facility in Carrboro and responded with some very good critiques.

Rainey pointed out that the food kitchen is a draw and that if the emergency shelter was combined with the feeding function it would be likely that the many more folks that use the kitchen would stick around to see if they could get into the emergency shelter (which is only open part of the year, due to weather and other conditions).

Essentially, mixing the two isn’t manageable while separating the populations is a more effective strategy: clients using the kitchen, emergency clients housed on the 1st floor of Community House and the 52 transitional clients on the 2nd floor.

Tim pointed out that the original proposal had 20 “emergency” slots and 32 fixed slots in the transitional program. On top of this was the 17 emergency beds for “white flag” nights. When did the mix originally presented become 52 transitional clients only, he wonders? What is the intake procedure? And in any case, what will the Town do to deal with an over concentration of social services for “at-risk” populations?

Rainey, returning to Tim’s earlier contention that %80 of homeless related violent crimes are perpetrated by men argued that this statistic on violent homeless men doesn’t apply to the IFC’s program and asked Tim to come checkout the existing programs to see the folks behind the numbers.

That was it for our own little confab (somewhat paraphrased and condensed).

Next up is the consolidated responses of the other 11 sub-groups.

The first group was read off at such a velocity that I only managed to catch every other comment. While other groups expressed varied concerns there were many common issues raised which I’ve consolidated as best as possible.

One troubling thread I’ve heard expressed since last Spring can broadly be characterized as “criminalizing” homelessness. Some of the rhetoric, like one gentleman correcting a speaker – interjecting “inmates” in reference to “clients” – is pretty bald – while other is a bit more insidious.

Along those lines, some folks suggested/asked about: taking fingerprints and DNA samples of clients, requiring tracking bracelets/anklets for clients and keeping clients indoors. Given that, it does sound like clients would be inmates.

There were reports of more “keying” of cars in the neighborhoods since Freedom House was built and smoking by residents of Freedom House driving people out of Homestead Park. Some neighbors are finding beer bottles on paths in Homestead Park – I didn’t quite catch the linkage to homeless folks.

Several comments along the lines of ‘”Police and elected officials are not responsive.”

On the flip-side, it was mentioned as a positive that Freedom House (a detox/rehab center next to Homestead Park) has asked their clients not to lounge in the park and it appears that’s been the case. “Would Community House ask their clients” to do the same?

Just as in the second Community House Forum I attended concerns about the transparency of the process, the public’s input into developing appropriate criteria for siting “at-risk” facilities, concentrations of social services (“at-risk” or not, depending on the speaker), why the Town won’t respond to citizen requests to adopt LUMO criteria guiding siting of such facilities like other NC communities have and similar participatory concerns arose.

“Why wasn’t there a public forum” to create the criteria? An adjunct to this was “Why isn’t Orange County helping IFC find an emergency shelter?” And will Orange County ask the public to help create siting criteria?

Security was another common thread. Some suggestions: improve lighting both in the park and neighborhoods, provide emergency “blue light” security poles in the park, increase police patrols, screen residents using criteria that the neighborhood agrees with and helped develop, monthly incident reports distributed to the neighborhoods.

Other security suggestions were more draconian as noted above.

Some general complaints about current police responsiveness, a lack of quality data on crime related to the current Downtown facility, crime associated with HomeStart/Freedom House and IFC’s recalcitrance in providing redacted records of those clients who have committed criminal acts (to better understand the extent and potential threat existing clients have posed).

Child safety is a common theme – including an unresolvable incapability of Community House with nearby childcare, parks, schools and other child-oriented facilities. “Too much, too close.”

If there is a core sticking point it involves emergency housing and expected utilization (“white flag” nights). Just like many of the folks tonight, I want to better understand the logistics of this proposal.

“Where will people go if they can’t get in the shelter?”

“What about the 18th client?” “What if people show up at Community House’s door?” “How will they be turned away?” “Will they be turned away?”

“What happens if they miss the 8pm curfew?”

Community House isn’t a jail, so a client, emergency or otherwise can leave at any time. What happens then?

“Will the police be notified?” “Will IFC keep a list” of clients who leave? “What happens when someone in the transitional program leaves?” “What are the rules for entering and exiting the facility?”

Other questions/concerns/suggestions:

There was also a common thread of concern about “Where is the local government support?”

“Where is Orange County? Where are they tonight?” “Why haven’t they taken on the siting and support of emergency services?”

“Why is a 501c3 taking on the obligations of Orange County?”

“If property values decrease who is responsible? What will the Town [elected officials] do?”

Questions also circulated around whether the results justified the burden placed on the neighborhoods. “Any proof that the proposed step up program works? What is the success rate? What happens to clients who “fail”?”

How people will use the facility and what type of problems are expected covered a broad spectrum.

“Who will use the medical services at Community House?” [Chris Moran responded later: HomeStart and Community House residents only].

“What if people sleep on the benches in Homestead Park, like they do Downtown?” When this was read out, a woman in the audience shouts “They already do!”.

Along those lines, “What will keep men from sleeping [camping] in the park?”

The idea that “at-risk” social services act as a magnet continues to work its way into peoples’ concerns.

Siting, a core contentious issue, generated a number of comments, my favorite being an observation about Meadowmont.

“Why was Meadowmont excluded?” “There is a perception that some neighborhoods are more privileged than others” and that rich Chapel Hill neighborhoods like Meadowmont will not be considered or take facilities like Community House.

The crowd was quite engaged especially considering the format. When the young man described Meadowmont rejecting a GoodWill facility many folks piped up and corrected him – “Governor’s Club!”. Of course, it’s an understandable confusion.

“Why was the police department site rejected?” There was a concern that Chris Moran has said it was because of the possible stigma and other folks, like Ann, said it was never entertained.

“Why was the Seymour Senior Center site rejected?” And given the proximity of the Homestead site to that center, are the reasons for that rejection relevant?

A slew of suggestions on having meet-n-greets with both existing and new clients (if Community House is built). This ranged from volunteering Downtown, creating new opportunities for volunteering at Community House to hav

On a more positive note, folks agreed that these services were needed, the community was obligated to provide them.

They also agree IFC has done an incredible job – several comments like “IFC needs more staff and more funding and support from local governments” , Why have we left emergency housing to IFC for so long?”, “Why isn’t Orange County” or “Chapel Hill” doing more to help IFC find a site for Community House or the emergency shelter?

Several IFC volunteers and staff reiterated that they have and do feel safe, that they haven’t seen the type of problems the neighbors continue to speculate about, that the project level of violence and criminality doesn’t match reality.

Someone suggested that putting Community House clients to work cleaning up litter and mowing grass in Homestead Park would build bridges between the neighborhoods and establish trust.

The good news is that the written notes of each group will be transcribed and recorded to the IFC’s March on Poverty website.

Finally, as at the prior two community-outreach events (“not a public meeting, a meeting the public is invited to” as Phil reminded us early on), the IFC staff responded to what they had just heard.

Angela and another staff member (sorry I didn’t catch your name if you’re reading this) summarized their understanding (which I’ve further condensed – more on the IFC website later).

IFC quick feedback:

Safety – property values, “18th person”, too many social services, concentration of services, check-in/out procedures, tracking bracelets, program compliance, screening for transition/emergency,background checks – “Who is responsible for property value decrease?”, better lighting

Communications/education – consolidation of online communication, monthly reports to community, opportunities to volunteer at facility, understanding site selection process for Homestead Rd. – more information – answer previous questions – “How will clients of transitional program be better members of community?” – What services provided to 52 transitional clients? Are we criminalizing homelessness? Where is government in this? Over concentration of services. What will happen to old municipal site Downtown? Where is government leadership in this?

Site preference- “any other site is a better site” which yielded some clapping from the crowd.

Chris Moran wrapped it up with these comments: better screening, what are the consequences? Good points, need further clarification. Emergency shelter – agrees that we need greater work on this….

Will Downtown churches take in folks?

Government needs to step up.

Clinics – only residents of Community House and HomeStart. Need more discussion of who 52 clients are – how do you meet them? Need to make sure community understands who is being serviced.

More education on how the relationship between the local governments and IFC will change after this is adopted.

“Ending on a positive note” – very pleased that community including local neighborhoods supports mission of IFC, that they want to help IFC and are working together with IFC to work through the process to both provide transitional programs and find suitable facilities for emergency housing.

That’s it for the live ‘blog notes. Hope someone finds it useful.

I took a similar number of notes last week using pen-and-paper. Old tech which doesn’t easily transfer to a ‘blog post. I’ll be reviewing those notes and create a new post if there are concerns dramatically different than those expressed this evening.

In closing, I know there remains deep divisions within our community on how to equitably site and provide social services.

No doubt that some folks see IFC’s outreach as a PR stunt, a way to deflect criticism, propaganda or worse – a prelude to the war over siting Community House.

Tonight’s comments and questions will surely be taken into account when the IFC prepares their application for a SUP (special use permit). I’m sure that the IFC will underscore to Council that they held these meetings, sought public input, reached out to the most disgruntled. I also agree that tonight’s process was flawed.

That doesn’t make me doubt the sincerity of IFC’s efforts.

Why?

For over twenty they’ve patiently waited for someone else to take on the burden of providing emergency shelter to the neediest among us.

For over ten years the Inter-Faith Councl has sought a site for a transitional program for men – not because of a profit motive or dreams of personal gain but because it is simply the right thing to do.

And while the IFC waited for that opportunity to serve, they also worked.

Their programs have flourished, produced real results.

Those results come because many of my neighbors, and possibly yours, have volunteered to make IFC’s programs successful.

That level and length of community support doesn’t come from trickery. That kind of loyalty from insincerity.

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