Sunday, May 01, 2005

Homelessness roundtable II

Yesterday's roundtable discussion at New Hope Elementary was much like the first one that was held in Chapel Hill in November, only it was specifically aimed at a northern Orange County audience. And, there's been important news since then: the county has officially kicked off its project to create a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness.

One difference was that the person representing the state of North Carolina's efforts was Denise Neunaber, project director for the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness. Denise told us a story: when she was in college, a dorm burned down. Many girls lost everything. A huge drive was conducted to replace their clothes, shoes, all their material needs--except one. It came to a point where the girls said, thanks, I think I have all the shoes I need, enough clothes. What I really need is a place to stay: a home.

What the homeless need is housing. What a remarkable idea, real housing as a first priority. It even may be counterintuitive: why not put them up "temporarily" in a shelter and then help them figure it out. Don't they need a job first? But it isn't easy to figure out your life, to look for a job, if you don't have housing. And so, take a look at Logan Place in Portland; or the Pathways to Housing project in New York.

This roundtable was also a bit more sobering than the first because of an open recognition of the changes in mental health services that are about to happen in North Carolina: large-scale "divestiture" on the part of the state. As Billie Guthrie said to me, we're launching this effort right at the time we're seeing another round of the kind of government dis-involvement of the 1970s and 1980s that created the very problem of homelessness as we know it today.

In my brief remarks I said, as I had before, that I can't separate this initiative from the work of Martin Luther King Jr. King said, "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring." Similarly, Philip Mangano, the head of the federal interagency council on homelessness, has said, "Spare change is not enough. . . . We need real change."

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