Homeless and outcast

An article in Sunday’s News & Observer mentioned that the Triangle doesn’t have enough shelter beds to accommodate all the registered sex offenders who are homeless. Once the IFC men’s shelter moves to Homestead Road, Chapel Hill washes it hands of the problem. The proposed shelter site is too close to a preschool and public park where children play to allow homeless registered sex offenders to go there, even on white flag nights, much less for transitional housing help.

Yet another example of how our town that would like to be known for its liberal values shows its true colors.

Several Town Council meetings ago, Matt Czajkowski asked how many homeless men the shelter needed to serve. Penny Rich claimed that the IFC could not be expected to know. Many of the homeless preferred to live under bridges and in the woods north of I-40, she said. By her reckoning, homelessness was a lifestyle choice. But registered sex offenders who do not choose the homeless lifestyle do not have a place to stay or even a place to go to be transported to a shelter run by more compassionate towns nearby.

Who could blame us for shrugging off our responsibility? For those of us who have children or were once children ourselves, the idea of sex offenders gives us an icky feeling. We would prefer they live somewhere else.

Yet the humane and responsible course would be to establish a separate homeless shelter for registered sex offenders, and tie that to the approval of relocating the IFC shelter. IFC and the town needn’t look far – the current shelter spot at 100 W. Rosemary is not near any parks or schools and can legally accept registered sex offenders. And it has enough beds to accept overflow from other parts of the Triangle. Rather than shrug off the problem of homeless sex offenders with a Not In My Backyard attitude, Chapel Hill could be part of a compassionate solution.

For a short video on the problem of where to shelter registered sex offenders, visit:
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Runner

     /  March 10, 2011

    Why lay this responsibility on the Town of Chapel Hill? Shouldn’t the County be be stepping up here and supporting these social service needs?

  2. John Kramer

     /  March 10, 2011

    All of our beloved local governments are falling all over each other trying to help. Except not. Pretty sad but not surprising.

  3. Chris Jones

     /  March 10, 2011

    I agree with Runner . . . . why is this a town issue? Why not a county issue? Why not a state issue?

    Better yet . . . If you’re that passionate about a potential problem, why wait for town/county/government/IFC/someone else to step to the plate? The beautiful part of this country is that you have every right to form your own organization, raise capital, and build your own shelter for any class of individuals you deem fit to occupy it.

  4. Mark Peters

     /  March 10, 2011

    Nancy, good article.

    The ABetterSite video at http://abettersite.org/SexOffendersatShelter.aspx would have leveraged the N&O information had the article been available at the time.

    There need not even be a separate shelter for homeless sex offenders, we simply needed a better process for siting this proposed relocation site. This was clearly something that IFC, UNC, and the town didn’t think about when siting. Yet another reason why this site never would have been chosen with a public process given the public money involved.

    The same problems with proximity to preschools exist for parolees of violent crimes which are not sex offenders.

    Runner, the town of Chapel Hill abandoned the ongoing siting work that it was doing in partnership with the county when it decided to go backroom with the siting. The county will simply say “we were working with you on this and then you decided to go on your own like you did with the library.”

  5. Mark Peters

     /  March 10, 2011

    Chris, if IFC were using private money to do this, then I would agree. But they are not. $2M and counting.

  6. The county is responsible for delivering human services.

    For too long the BOCC has been happy to let the IFC shoulder the burden. Starting a couple years ago I asked the BOCC to re-engage and provide leadership – including working on finding a site that will support the wide range of homeless populations and the expected growth in those populations. Last year, when they were divvying up the potential %.25 sales tax revenue I lobbied for them to invest a good size chunk in providing emergency shelter. In both cases, asking for money and asking for leadership, they deferred. So, Mark, I disagree that the County was willing to be firmly invested in the process.

    At this point, I don’t think the BOCC will rise to the challenge unless there’s no alternative.

    The IFC, well-versed in local governments punting on their obligations, decided not to wait on the BOCC coming around. Instead, they put together what they thought was the best plan – use what resources they could muster to address as many needs as possible. In this, no one can argue that their heart is absolutely in the right place – that they are “walking the talk” and upholding the best qualities we expect from our community.

    If the IFC remains the only institution willing to do the “right thing”, then I believe the best solution is to create a dual-use facility in Carrboro. Other jurisdictions have successfully combined a food distribution center with emergency housing. I do understand the problems attendant to that approach – to effectively expand the use of the Carrboro site comes with several problems: money, political unwillingness, etc. Even with those foreseeable problems, I think that it’s the best solution IF IF IF the IFC is forced to bear a burden that rightfully belongs with the County.

    As far as understanding the scope of the need, I completely disagree with Penny and Donna. Human service agencies already make educated estimates of need. No one, including Matt C., suggested that a specific number could be generated but there is no reason we can’t make some estimates which would establish what percent of the potential population will be served by 17 beds.

  7. Mark Peters

     /  March 10, 2011

    Will, I think we actually agree on most of your points related to the history and political environment.

    My point was even if the county were so inclined to provide or fund emergency shelter (which they appear to have shown no interest in), they will be even *less* inclined since they were excluded from this siting process.

    And I agree with your other point, as long as someone appears to have *some* solution to white flag night shelter, then the town and county are not motivated to provide it. That is a fundamental problem with providing permanent white flag night beds @ Homestead/MLK. The town should not allow it. They should host it at OMB or at churches and force the town and/or county to come up with a solution. It is apparent that without a gaping hole in services or a ticking clock, nothing will happen.

    The other issue on this, however, is the funding side of this. Funding for an emergency shelter would compete with CDBG/HOME funds that IFC appears to be reliant upon for the proposed shelter relocation. And private donations used to construct or run an emergency shelter would compete with IFC’s private donations.

  8. Terri Buckner

     /  March 10, 2011

    The 17 beds was based on the past couple of years of usage, Will. But that wasn’t the question Matt asked in the meeting.

  9. Terri, I was at the meeting and recall that Matt was trying to ask if the number of beds was appropriate to the need – in other words, trying to see how “right-sized” the proposal was… I know there was a bit of back-n-forth among the Council members with responses ranging from Penny’s/Donna’s of “it can’t be done” to Matt’s point that other social services make these kind of estimates all the time.

  10. Terri Buckner

     /  March 10, 2011

    Will, Matt was asking an all-encompassing question. The response was that the need fluctuates. At times the 17 beds will be too many. At other times, it may not be enough. There is no simple answer. IMHO, Chris should have said they have designed a facility based on estimated past used with some room to grow. Nancy has an article that I’ve written that will address this in more detail. She will post it later tonight.

  11. Chris Moran

     /  March 16, 2011

    Here are the facts. As of March4, 2011, 102 sex offenders were living in Orange County and none of them were determined homeless or staying in IFC facilities. This special population is not generally homeless in Orange County. Victims of sexual assault and domestic violence do find themselves homeless which was one of the reasons why the IFC began the HomeStart residential program 14 years ago this April.

  12. Jason Kirk

     /  March 16, 2011

    Here are some more facts:

    According to the NC Department of Correction, 10 percent of nearly 400 sex offenders released from prisons statewide over a five-month period in 2008 “did not have a viable home plan and were at risk of becoming homeless.”

    Other above-capacity shelters in the Triangle do provide services to sex offenders, but must turn some of them away; see the recent media reports about the Wilmington St shelter in Raleigh where 40 sex offenders register their address, of which 35 are on the shelter’s “bed list” (i.e., they stay there or want to stay there) and but cannot always get in due to overcrowding. To say that some sex offenders simply falsely register a shelter address is another smokescreen; there is a clearly a population that needs help, even if it is a “special population.”

    In fact the IFC, which is run by highly competent, well-read social service professionals, must be familiar with this situation confronting peer institutions in the immediate area — even if its leadership has been unaware of the extensive national media coverage on the issue of rising homelessness among sex offenders over the past several years (see articles in The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, Newsweek, USA Today, and others).

    I can understand if the IFC did not consider provisions for sex offenders when it began its site search several years ago, before residency restrictions confronting sex offenders existed and started driving up their rate of homelessness.

    But for the IFC leadership — and far worse, the Town of Chapel Hill and Orange Co. — to continue to pretend that this difficult issue doesn’t exist is just putting their collective heads in the sand. The issue will probably get worse, too, since the residency restriction for sex offenders has been a NC statute for less than five years; sex offenders who have been incarcerated during this period will continue to come out of prisons lacking housing plans and at risk of homelessness.

    Recidivism is actually lower for sex offenders than for many other kinds of crime (and not all sex offenses are violent or predatory), but given the intense social stigma and the related stresses that this population faces, access to the kind of excellent rehabilitative program proposed at the new Community House should be available to them — both for humanitarian reasons, and in the interest of community safety.

    The IFC’s executive director has said that it is “foolish” for concerned neighbors to keep bringing this issue up (see WCHL story for quotes) and has said that “the sex offender population in not generally homeless.”

    Well. The general population is not generally homeless. Would he then argue that the general population doesn’t need social services? (And you can substitute any other “special population” you like to see the flawed logic: try, “The mentally ill population is not generally homeless” or “The criminal offender population is not generally homeless”).

    Homeless sex offenders are in our community. The fact that none currently appear on the registry in Orange Co. is meaningless non-proof, if meant to prove their nonexistence. For example, the Chapel Hill homeless man who was arrested last month (see Herald-Sun story) did not appear as “homeless” on the registry. He was registered as living in an apartment but was in fact homeless (a probation officer found him in violation of his registry requirement). He tried to get into the IFC shelter, where he had stayed before, but he was disallowed (reasons unclear). He will be residing in prison for the next 17 to 21 months, according to the Herald-Sun story. With the inability of offenders to register at the IFC’s new location, expect more residency violations and more taxpayer-funded incarceration of persons who may or may not present a risk to the community.

    Why won’t the IFC admit that it failed to grasp this very real issue? Too much invested in the proposed site. You’re the homelessness intervention professionals, IFC — if you downplay this issue, you give our public officials license to ignore it, too.

    No easy answers, to be sure — but you could find a better site that would allow you to serve all homeless men, including sex offenders. Especially since this is explicitly intended as a men-only facility.

  13. Lisa Ostrom

     /  March 18, 2011