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Finding a home for the homeless 

With Chapel Hill's homeless shelter for men back in its newly renovated but still undersized home on West Rosemary Street, plans by the Inter-Faith Council to build a new, larger facility are still missing a most crucial element: a place to call home. The complicated situation, rife with irony, is largely the result of fear-driven opposition from some residents in or around the sites under consideration for the new shelter. Until recently, this resistance has been the only noise coming from the community.

What began last summer with a petition and a very visible, vocal outcry from several concerned residents near a proposed Merritt Mill Road site soon spread to other neighborhoods near Legion Road, including The Meadows, Turnberry and, most recently, Pickard Oaks. A petition presented by the Pickard Oaks group last month at a Chapel Hill Town Council meeting expressed their fears and apprehension about the shelter's potential effect on their neighborhood.

The groups argue that a shelter would pose a safety threat to their neighborhood and would have adverse effects on property values. They worry about the presence of panhandlers and substance abusers. The Pickard Oaks petition states, "Residents who are thrown out of the shelter for substance abuse or behavior problems would then become the problem of the surrounding communities." The Meadows and Turnberry groups said that they were appalled by the thought of a homeless shelter in their neighborhood.

In response to the mounting opposition, a new community voice is rising in hopes of dispelling the myths and misunderstandings that leave so many residents appalled by the proposition of a shelter near their homes. David Hood, a resident of the Pickard Oaks neighborhood, pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and a member of the Inter-Faith Council board, developed an alternate petition that acknowledges the complexity of homelessness and the need to look beyond the stereotypes now firmly entrenched in the community dialogue.

"Initially, as a member of the IFC Board, I didn't intend to make myself so visible," Hood says. "But when I heard about the petition in my neighborhood--my personal backyard--I knew I needed to stand up and say something."

"As a pastor," Hood states in the petition, "I am personally aware of people who are homeless because of downsizing, bad luck, whatever. Once a person is homeless, our society makes it virtually impossible to climb out of that hole."

Hood's petition, developed with IFC Executive Director Chris Moran, explains the new organization and philosophy of the proposed facility. The new facility, the petition states, "will be a rehabilitative program in collaboration with professional agencies, volunteers and congregations." The petition also states IFC's intention to separate the food kitchen from the shelter, in order to "drastically curtail the 'traffic' that exists around the current homeless shelter at the corner of Columbia and Rosemary in downtown Chapel Hill."

"This is not a shelter," Hood said. "It's a facility. We're giving these men a hand up, not a hand out, and we have to change this perspective in the community."

"Homeless residents," the petition states, "will be directly involved in the operation of the new facility. They will have 'ownership' of what happens and will be accountable to each other and the community in which they live."

Moran echoed Hood's explanation. "These people deserve better," he said. "They want to be safe, they want to be in a structured program, they want to break the cycle of homelessness. It's our mission to help them do that, and we will."

The petition also makes clear that IFC has made no decision on the new facility and no exchange of money. "IFC's position right now when looking at properties is strictly exploratory."

The petition also acknowledges the safety and security concerns of the neighborhood, but asks that residents "seek to become part of the solution to homelessness in [the] community."

Hood sees education as the most important obstacle to overcome. "I don't think there's anything malicious in these people's actions," he says. "I believe that people basically care about each other, but our lives are so busy that we don't think about these issues until it's in our backyard. That leads to a lack of understanding and fear."

Having only recently passed the petition to his Pickard Oaks neighbors, Hood has yet to receive substantial feedback and has yet to decide where the petition could go next. "Right now, I'm just trying to engage the people of Pickard Oaks," he said. "I'm waiting to see how my neighbors react.

"There is a community-wide effort to end homelessness, and this is just one small part."


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