Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Chapel Hill endorses homelessness plan

Late on the agenda of last night's Council meeting, long after the public hearing on the proposed moratorium for the northwest area, after the manager had presented his recommended budget, we endorsed Orange County's Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. You can read the whole thing online.

The roots of this project go back to a roundtable discussion on homelessness held in Chapel Hill in November 2004, attended by around 300 people. We heard about Raleigh's 10-year planning process, and work began to consider whether we ought to embark on one. By September 2005, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, and the county had agreed to work on a joint plan. A steering committee was formed. With the help of a consultant, J-Quad, in February 2006 eighteen focus group sessions were held throughout the county. Over the school year 2005-06 a team of graduate students from the UNC School of Public Health performed an "Action-oriented community diagnosis" (.pdf) involving intensive interviews and a public forum.

In June 2006, the steering committee made a policy decision that the plan would emphasize solutions to chronic homelessness, but not at the expense of ongoing important efforts to combat transitional homelessness or to support the many people at risk of becoming homeless. The focus on chronic homelessness recognizes that these people are truly the least among us: they are broken down with no place to go. And they have the greatest impact on the community in terms of their consumption of public resources.

Over summer 2006, a series of subcommittees of the steering committee worked with the information that had been collected to that point to come up with the recommendations that, with the steering committee's final input, resulted in the final plan.

The key strategy for addressing chronic homelessness is . . . homes. The "housing first" model, as other cities have begun to demonstrate, is an approach that works. It works in terms of getting people housed and keeping them engaged with the services they need, and it works in terms of saving public money. This model reflects changed thinking in the social services community: it's a shift from the "housing ready" model, in which a person was supposed to show that he or she "deserved" housing. The trouble with that model is that the things you need to "deserve" housing, like sobriety and a job, can be hard to land if you don't have a stable housing situation in the first place.

It's an ambitious program. It calls for 40 units of permanent supportive housing to be built, rehabbed, or rented during the first 3-5 years of the program. And that's with intensive support services, which is crucial. You don't just give someone a key and say here's your house.

In addition to concentrating on the chronically homeless, the plan has four other major goals:

  • Increase employment
  • Expand efforts to prevent homelessness
  • Increase access to services (e.g., support the IFC's efforts to go to 24/7 availability)
  • Increase public participation in working on these issues

The first step will be the hiring of a full-time coordinator for the plan. So much of the plan involves coordination of resources, putting heads together to address common interests. For example, the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership's downtown outreach task force is working on a street outreach program that fits well within the homelessness plan. Another important responsibility of the coordinator will be working to secure funding from the numerous public and private sources that are available.

Working on this plan has shown me that across the county there's a great collective will to take on these issues--though some frustration at not knowing how. Homeless people too are interested in working on solutions for themselves and others. Homelessness is a complex problem reflective of many others, including a crisis in mental health services, the problems of returning veterans, substance abuse issues, consequences of domestic violence, and on and on. There is no easy solution. Representing the collaborative work of many, many county residents, Orange County's Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness has great potential bring all of us together to do what we can for each other.

UPDATE 5/9: Terry Allebaugh, director of Housing for New Hope in Durham, goes to Washington.

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