My View

Bebe Smith: Homeless dying on our streets

October 4, 2013 

Bebe Smith

Last month three people were struck by cars and killed in Chapel Hill. All three were members of our community and they were homeless. I am writing to call on our community to do more to help prevent our most vulnerable citizens from dying on the streets.

In 2012, the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness joined the 100,000 Homes Campaign, a national grassroots effort that has the goal of housing homeless people who are most likely to die on the streets. Orange County’s 100,000 Homes Task Force comprises local professionals working with this population including mental health, substance abuse, health, street outreach, veterans and housing service providers as well as representatives from the Chapel Hill Police Department and the UNC School of Social Work.

Using information from a survey to assess vulnerability, we created a list of the most vulnerable members of our homeless community. With the consent of these individuals, members of the task force started working together to figure out how to house them.

The task force members share a deep commitment to social justice and humane care for all in our community. We work together to provide outreach to those most in need, to connect them to services, and to help them find housing. Over the past year and a half, we have housed 14 individuals.

But we are limited in what we can do. Last month’s tragic events highlight how our health and human service systems are failing our most vulnerable citizens in Chapel Hill and Orange County.

Who are the homeless? They each have a story to tell. Many have disabilities. Some have untreated mental illness, severe addiction, medical illnesses and traumatic brain injuries. Most have had chaotic lives, and many have experienced significant trauma. They have limited family and social support. Those who are disabled often do not have any income – no one has helped them navigate the complex Social Security system, and because they do not have health insurance, they often cannot access treatment and services.

In a community with so much wealth, how can we tolerate the uncomfortable reality that people in need live in abandoned houses, crawl spaces, and campsites in the woods? How can we pass human suffering every day and simply turn away, or say that it’s someone else’s responsibility to care for the poor and the sick and the hungry? How can we judge them as being unworthy of our help without really understanding who they are and what they have experienced?

Chapel Hill is rich in resources compared to much of North Carolina. We have lost our community mental health system over the past seven years, and it is becoming more difficult for the poor to access health care in our local community.

Whose responsibility is it to care for those most in need in our community? It is yours and mine. We cannot rely on state government to provide solutions at this time. But we can draw on the strengths of our local community and develop community solutions. At our 100K Homes Task Force meeting this week, we identified a few simple solutions:

• Provide space to provide a welcoming day center/safe haven that will provide access to basic needs and resources for people in need.

• Prove access to guardianship services and payee services for vulnerable individuals.

• Follow the recommendations of the Mayor’s Committee on Affordable Housing, and support the creation of additional affordable housing options in our community.

• Convene community leaders, including those who are providing direct services and support to the homeless population (the Community Empowerment Fund, Housing for New Hope, Freedom House, UNC’s Critical Time Intervention Team, and Interfaith Council, among others), to generate additional solutions, and to assess the best community response to how to create a functional system of care amongst private providers and volunteer organizations in our local health and human service systems.

Let us use our time of sadness to create positive change.

Bebe Smith is a clinical assistant professor in the UNC School of Social Work.

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