In defense of churches

In a snippet from Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back,” a mother surveys a mess and says, “… ‘somebody has to clean all this away. Somebody, somebody has to you see.’ Then she picked out to Somebodies. Sally and me.”

Something we in Chapel Hill have to clean up is the problem of helping the homeless get back on their feet. Somebody has to step up. The IFC has for decades and now is shifting its focus to long-term solutions to homelessness. But some shelter clients may not be ready to move on to solutions. Many have mental health issues or addictions or both. The state is cutting its mental health services budget, betting that somebody will step up to fill the void.

Several churches have given financial and volunteer help to IFC’s programs. Some may well open their doors as a shelter. If they do, here are some of the issues they must contend with:

A place for the men to wash up. Most churches don’t come equipped with showers, other than perhaps the apartment for the church mouse, and it’s not right to expect the overnight caretaker to share his shower with a dozen or so men who live on the streets.

Laundering the pillows, sheets, blankets, washcloths and towels every morning. It’s expensive, and many churches are struggling to meet their budgets already as donations and pledges shrink in the recession.

Volunteer staff. Unless a church can afford to hire staff to stay up all night to run the shelter operation, it will rely on volunteers, who don’t always have the same commitment to work as they do to their paid jobs. Volunteers have to be trained to work with a special needs population. A plan has to be made to staff the place if volunteers cancel last minute or don’t show up at all. The majority of church volunteers are women, but in this case, more men would have to step up.

Health issues. Head lice and fleas come to mind. A church has to have a room without carpet or drapes or upholstered furniture to serve as a dorm. Often, someone will become ill in the middle of the night – not a life-threatening illness that requires an ambulance, but something that requires over-the-counter medicine or at least cleaning up a mess. (Just try to get that volunteer back again.) And is the volunteer liable if the over-the-counter medicine causes a deleterious reaction?

Security. Ideally, the dorm should be a room that can be sealed off from the rest of the church so that shelter guests don’t squirrel themselves away in other parts of the church where they’ll be unsupervised. Does the church have to have elevator access to the dorm? What is the church’s liability should a volunteer be hurt by a shelter guest?

Despite this, I’m certain churches will do their part. As a taxpayer, I’d like to see the government step up, too. The town spent nearly $50,000 on consultants to fire two town workers and to mediate a Neighborhood Conservation District process. That would have been a nice first step to providing emergency shelter.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Folks interested in emergency housing for the homeless should ask our Orange County commissioners to take up an obligation they have let the IFC shoulder too long.

    I have asked them several times over the last couple years to do just that but until a broad coalition of citizens demand action I’m fairly sure they will continue to punt.

    Chapel Hill’s Town Council is meeting with them Thursday, I suggest contacting the Council ( ) and ask them to discuss the County’s obligation with the BOCC.

    The BOCC will be holding another public hearing on the proposed sales tax increase April 5th in Hillsborough. I plan to attend and ask, as I did last year, that a significant chunk of any new revenue (if the tax increase passes) be dedicated to financing an adequate facility for emergency housing.

  2. Runner

     /  March 23, 2011

    Despite the bureaucratization of the social services process, I don’t see why the new Community House should be the singular solution for supporting the emergency homeless on white flag nights in Orange County.

    Yes, the most efficient way to do anything is to spread the fixed costs across the most units possible. But this isn’t widgets we’re making here, it’s providing services.

    If the local governments and charitable organizations want to outsource the sheltering process to the IFC, then they should help the IFC set up 3 or 4 small “White Flag” shelters throughout Orange County.

  3. John Kramer

     /  March 23, 2011

    It is incredibly sad to me that in spite of all the intelligent people who live in Chapel Hill there seems to be a huge vacuum in this sort of discussion. It is instead left to a handful of “regulars” who resent the Mark Peters of the world raining on their parade.

    It is no wonder that people that I know on a regular basis say, Kramer why do you even care to comment? Especially when I suffer the abuse of those who disagree. Maybe it is time to give up. The myopia of the locals is something that blinds others colatteraly.

    Adios, and good luck. Me, I will fend for myself and my kids. You all cannot handle an alternative opinion so I will spare you the intelligent thought required.

  4. Runner

     /  March 24, 2011

    Based on Mr. Kramer’s “advice”, I visited the website today to see what’s going on over there. I hadn’t been to that site in over than 9 months.

    It looks to me that the site is pretty dead. There are few postings and even fewer competing opinions being shared over there. I think that the highly moderated format of the Orangepolitics site is contributing to its decline.

    I’m not saying that it will disappear, but it’s own structure is hurting it’s viability. What’s the point in posting something if it will most likely be deleted by the opinion police?

    While I disagree with some of the statements made on this site, at least there is a vigorous dialogue going on here.