Being at Town Hall on Monday May 9th, I observed the Town Council as it struggled with the Special Use Permit (SUP) for the Inter Faith Council for Social Service’s (IFC) proposal to build a new men’s 52-bed transitional facility and a 17-cot emergency shelter at 1315 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. In the four hours that the public hearing lasted, there were plenty of things I heard that were on one hand, encouraging, and on the other hand very disappointing.
During the comments by Rabbi Jennifer Feldman of the Chapel Hill Kehillah Synagogue, she was asked by councilmember Matt Czajkowski if she thought the faith community would be willing to each house 17 homeless men for 4 to 5 nights a year. She said that she had some experience with doing this from her days in Philadelphia and that it took a good amount of time to be able to do so. Rabbi Feldman also indicated that her facility just wasn’t equipped to do this, as they didn’t have showers. Czajkowski then pointed out that she would have 2 to 4 years to resolve that problem.
Being aware of the IFC’s history and its roots in the faith community, I know that it was in 1985 that the shelter program began in local churches and then moved to the old jail. In 1990, the New Community House opened in the Old Municipal Building as an emergency shelter and community kitchen. Putting the shelter in a facility and not at local churches made a lot of sense. For good reasons, looking to churches for a solution now is just not that simple.
Two things stand out in my mind. First, most churches are just not equipped to be a shelter and, just like our local government financial situation, I don’t think that most are in a position to allocate the money that would be required to make their facilities compliant. Additionally, churches use their facilities in the evening to support their programs and the activities of a variety of community groups. Call it an excuse if you want, but churches do have a mission and their facilities figure prominently in accomplishing that mission.
More important is that most churches just don’t have volunteers with the expertise to manage a shelter overnight, even for a short duration. Sure, you could overcome that by having some organization or agency supplying them with trained staff each night but I just don’t see that as the solution because of all of the logistical complexity involved. As the IFC stated in their presentation to the Council, the solution was to have a dedicated and professionally staffed facility, and until some other entity became responsible for a shelter, they saw their new transitional facility as the best solution.
It appears that more than a few here look in a single direction for the solution to housing the homeless during inclement weather, but the IFC and the churches, as well as the other organizations and individuals who support its mission can’t be the only solution. The IFC stepped up and offered a solution because they knew from experience that using churches on a rotational basis was not a viable solution.
So where do we look for a solution? While I don’t believe every problem we have is the responsibility of the government to solve, isn’t there a good reason our governments give money to help operate the IFC’s emergency shelter program? If there were no IFC what would happen then? Like most complex problems that we face as a community, there has to be a community solution. Let’s get busy.
Now, those are my thoughts. What are yours? Comment below!