In late 2013, it seemed like the grappling over feeding the homeless in Moore Square would never end. Volunteers who came to the park on Saturdays and Sundays for years were threatened with arrest for distributing coffee and biscuits to the hungry. The sudden enforcement of a fourteen-year-old ordinance prohibiting food distribution in public parks made national news, creating a tense situation among the Raleigh Police Department, nonprofits, and city officials.
The standoff would have been a lot for anyone to handleespecially someone so new to this line of advocacy work. Shana Overdorf, the executive director of the Raleigh-Wake Partnership to End Homelessness, had stepped into her new role on October 21, 2013, in the middle of the Moore Square crisis.
The next day, Overdorf attended a community meeting in the massive IMAX building across the street from the park, where 150 people representing forty different community groups were waiting to discuss the issue.
“A PowerPoint went up about the short- and long-term solutions,” she recalls, “and I was thinking, is that us? Here I am, one day into the job, and there were a lot of challenges.”
Overdorf has instigated a massive amount of change in her two and a half years as the partnership’s executive director. In addition to coordinating the two dozen individual agencies that provide homelessness services in the area, Overdorf oversees The Wake County Homeless Resource Guide and Project Homelessness Connect. She also led the charge to create the Oak City Outreach Center, a thirty-two-hundred-square-foot food distribution center across the street from Moore Square that opened in 2014.
“I was working with people experiencing homelessness prior to her coming in, and, I swear, it felt like nothing would ever change,” says Maggie Kane, a volunteer at the center who plans to open a pay-what-you-can cafe this summer. “But the change with her here has been radical for the community. She coordinated with the city, built great relationships with nonprofits, and brought everyone together. We finally collaborate because of her.”
Kane says it’s hard to imagine that a large undertaking like a centralized food-distribution center would have been possible without Overdorf’s guidance. At the Outreach Center, Overdorf coordinates with forty-eight different volunteer and community groups that provide meals on the weekends.
“I will tell you now, twenty months into this, that we have groups working together who probably never envisioned that,” Overdorf says. “In the morning, it could be a church, in the afternoon a nonprofit, and the next morning an Islamic group. We have a lot of diversity, and everyone has stayed with us.”
Overdorf has also been instrumental in healing the relationship between the homeless and the Raleigh Police Department. With over a hundred people in the building at any given time, the center relies on a roster of fifty RPD members who have chosen the Outreach Centerover football games and concertsto devote their off-duty hours to.
“They stand for nine or ten hours a day and interact with people they might not normally interact with,” she says. “Giving the police department the opportunity to be seen in a positive way is one of the things I’m most proud of. They deserve that.”
With Overdorf at the partnership’s helm, the number of homeless in Wake County has dropped from 1,170 in 2014 to 887 in 2015, according to annual counts. With the right tools, Overdorf believes her team can end homelessness entirely in Wake County. She sees affordable housing as her next big challenge, along with standardizing systems throughout the various agencies she works with. That effort begins with a partnership between Overdorf’s group, the city of Raleigh, and Wake County to capitalize on the momentum of the Oak City Outreach Center and build a multiservice facilitythink showers, lockers, and laundrywithin the next two years.
“We’re doing a lot more than just serving meals. It’s relationships, community building, connecting people,” Overdorf says. “We send volunteers to pick up trash in Moore Square, because we love downtown Raleigh and want to be really good neighbors. We want people to be happy, because this is just the beginning.”