Tuesday, November 29, 2005

PATHs home

The 2005 North Carolina Conference on Homelessness, sponsored by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, is taking place through tomorrow in Raleigh. I went to today's luncheon, where Mayor Foy and County Commission Chair Cary accepted an award for leadership in establishing a partnership to create a 10-year plan for ending homelessness in Orange County; and I attended the afternoon session for elected officials.

I learned a lot at that session--for one thing, that Gastonia has a great mayor. Jennifer Stulz is making things happen. Last year, the Gastonia police department won an award from the International Association of Chiefs of Police for community police work with their homeless population.

The community policing unit has worked closely with faith-based organizations to help address the problem of homelessness. Though on a small scale—only about 30 people in the downtown area are chronically homeless and 3 people successfully went through detox and halfway house programs—the project demonstrates how to share information and build partnerships.

Mayor Stultz talked about what the police actually do: they will talk to a homeless person, ask where their family is, what their problems are, and finally, whether they could use some help. Next thing, the police officer may be escorting the person to the detox center and, eventually, driving the person to distant places to be with loved ones.

Like Chapel Hill, Gastonia has a central business district where the homeless population has been considered a serious problem. Mayor Stultz' achievement was to convince the business community that the homeless were an economic development problem: that was the key step in enlisting their support.

Another great idea I learned about was the "one-stop" model of providing services to the homeless. Kay Ferguson and David Harris of Wake County talked about their experience with Katrina victims. In a span of 24 hours, 385 people were evacuated to Raleigh. Some didn't even know where they were. (When told he was in North Carolina, one man commented that at least the barbeque was good.) Quickly the county leased a space, an unused Nortel facility, and set up shop. In one location these people could sleep and eat, but also they could talk to HUD folks, and FEMA, and get medical attention, and more. We learned that this was the intuitive way in which Katrina relief sites were being set up all over the country: it just made sense, and it worked.

So why not do something like that with permanent homeless populations? It is being done: see the PATHMall in Los Angeles. Take the tour, dig the colors! I'd like to see our IFC evolve into something like this. IFC director Chris Moran, who was at the conference but not at this session, said he liked the idea too.

Even without having a "one stop" facility in place, communities are figuring out ways to approximate the result, if only for one day every couple of months or so. Last year San Francisco pioneered Project Homeless Connect, a day-long event in which volunteers go out into the community, find homeless people, and direct them to the services they need. This year, December 8 is National Project Homeless Connect Day. There's not enough time to organize one for Chapel Hill, but it's something to think about.

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