On Tuesday, the same day Raleigh’s much-awaited, $20 million affordable housing plan was unveiled, a panel of activists gathered at the Walnut Creek Wetland Center to discuss another set of intricately linked issues that the city faces: homelessness and food insecurity.
Hosted by City Council member Bonner Gaylord, panelists discussed the root causes of homelessness and food insecurity—which is defined as being without reliable access to safe, nutritious, sufficient food in order to live a healthy life—as well as what Raleigh is doing to address these issues and what the city could be doing better.
“A lot of it boils down to the public will,” said Nation Hahn, president of the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation which works to promote leadership in poor and hungry communities. “We know there’s a need, but too many people are unseen, unheard, unrecognized. Can we build the public will, can we build public awareness of solutions that exist and actually go forth and take action?”
According to the January 24, 2015 Point-in-Time count, there are 887 people currently experiencing homelessness in Raleigh. 494 of the homeless people counted are men, 386 are women and 7 identified as transgender.
Following Biscuitgate in 2013, Raleigh’s homelessness crisis and the city’s management of it was thrown into the national spotlight. Residents showed up en masse to a City Council meeting to show their support for Raleigh’s homeless residents and their desire to solve the problem.
A year later, Raleigh opened the Oak City Outreach Center, which serves meals to homeless residents on the weekends, when the city’s shelters are closed. The Outreach Center is temporary, and in his report to Council on affordable housing, Larry Jarvis, director of Raleigh’s Housing and Neighborhoods Department, laid out a plan to open a permanent, one-stop services center for homeless people to access by 2018.
It’s a good step, but the panelists agreed it will take much more to end homelessness and food insecurity.
“We are compassionate, but our actions don’t meet our ideals,” said the Rev. Hugh Hollowell, the founder of Love Wins Ministries, which serves as a faith-based community for Raleigh’s homeless residents. “Our policies don’t represent the best of what we believe.”
“I have a list,” said Erin Byrd, the founder of the Fertile Ground Food Coop in Southeast Raleigh, when asked what the city could do better to address homelessness and food insecurity. Better transit, slowing gentrification, paying workers a living wage of $12-$15 an hour, creating small, cooperative economies and passing laws to prevent discrimination on worksites all made her list.
“We could look at existing resources and look at how we could use them differently,” said Shana Overdorf, the executive director of the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness. “Is it converting abandoned buildings, converting hotels, is it tiny homes? That’s where I would like to see some change.”
Erin White, the founder of Community Food Lab, a design and consulting firm focused on local food systems, says taking advantage of underutilized resources is the way to solve hunger problems as well.
“All the food that we throw away before it’s actually bad, can we get smart about diverting that to get to the people that are hungry?” he asks. “Can we use space that we don’t use and grow food there? We are surrounded by open space in this city that’s not getting used.”
Hollowell says homelessness is cheaper to end than it is to manage.
“But it requires a commitment of funding for a long period of time before you begin to see savings,” he said. “The places that do this better honor peoples’ agency. Most of us make the best choices we can given the information we have available. If we want to improve peoples’ situations, we need to fight to increase the number of options they have available to them.”