No one wants to talk about it,
but homelessness can’t be willed out of sight. 

It’s visible in the sleeping bags and bags of clothes tucked into corners of Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, but it exists outside the periphery, too. Even for people who work within the community, it’s uncomfortable.

“I feel discomfort when I see someone experiencing homelessness who’s panhandling or that kind of thing because I know in my heart that it’s not right,” says Corey Root. “In our society, we have enough to go around, but for whatever reason, that’s not happening and that makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Root is the manager of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, part of the county government that oversees how we address homelessness in our community. In 2020, the partnership began four programs that shifted the way local government interacts with homelessness.

The group’s mantra is “housing first.” This concept is fairly new but growing in popularity: the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has started to use this method instead of the transitional housing model they have recommended for years. The issue with transitional housing, Root says, is that it isn’t a permanent solution—and by HUD’s definition, folks in transitional housing are still homeless.

“What we would see with this transitional housing is the long length of time that people are experiencing homelessness—say three months in the shelter, two years in a transitional housing program,” Root says. “That’s two years and three months that you’ve been experiencing homelessness, that you’re not in your space where you make the rules and where you feel comfortable.”

This also gets at a big issue in Orange County. Root says shelters in the county are almost always full and have long waitlists; you can’t show up day-of and get a bed for the night. There are also people who have lived in these shelters for years without a permanent housing solution. 

In April 2020, the partnership created a housing helpline for people to call, a housing access coordinator who works with landlords to find permanent housing, and rapid re-housing, which offers aid so folks can get into housing as soon as possible. From April to December, the partnership received more than 9,900 calls and 7,000 emails from people on the verge of homelessness or already homeless. 

“We see it over and over and over again—once folks are able to get into housing, a lot of other things are able to just sort of settle out a little bit,” Root says. “That stress and constant trauma is able to settle down so that folks are able to work on other things.”

Another issue that has plagued Orange County for years is the lack of a street outreach program with long-term connections. One has existed within the Chapel Hill Police Department since the early 1970s, around the time public housing began losing funding. The outreach team’s supervisor, Megan Johnson, says it was one of the first programs in the country. The issue, she says, is that unsheltered people’s lives are crises.

“That crisis is still going to be there,” she says of the help they can offer. “They still likely don’t have anywhere to sleep tonight.”

That’s where the partnership’s Street Outreach, Harm Reduction and Deflection (SOHRAD) program comes in. Instead of immediate care, like what’s offered by CHPD, they work solely with the unsheltered residents of Orange County.

“They’re on Franklin Street really regularly, out at the campsites, at jail, in the hospital, that kind of thing,” Root says. “They’re really out and about, they don’t just sit behind a desk and file reports.”

Their focus is on the long-term: making connections with the folks they meet so that they feel comfortable speaking with the caseworkers. They ask people if they want help and what they need. If someone doesn’t want help, the group doesn’t give up. They’ll ask again the next time they’re out and about.

Both SOHRAD and the CHPD crisis program are alternatives to policing and incarceration. If there isn’t an immediate danger, other community members have a safe space to call. But it requires other community members to know the difference between “danger” and “discomfort,” Root says, mentioning that folks usually conflate the two.

“[Discomfort’s] important, and that’s something we should listen to and act on,” Root says. “But that doesn’t mean that there’s danger.” 

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