Homelessness in Chapel Hill is an issue that, unlike what happens in many communities, reaches headlines in our local media and often the agendas of our Town Council. However, as residents of Chapel Hill seek to safeguard business interests downtown, and as the worsening economic climate continues to find more and more in need, the topic has become increasingly contentious. In too many cases, our most needy citizens are seen as eyesores, barriers to business development and told to get out of town.
With local food pantries stretched to their limits and the current downtown shelter falling into decay, the Chapel Hill Town Council, after lengthy hearings and deliberations, approved the Inter-Faith Council (IFC) Men’s Community House Transitional Shelter Special Use Permit (SUP) in 2011 subject to the IFC satisfying several conditions, including the creation of a Good Neighbor Plan (GNP).
The approved plan calls for the closing of the current emergency shelter, at 100 W. Rosemary St., and the construction of an expanded men’s transitional facility in the Homestead Park area of Chapel Hill (the neighborhood between Homestead Road, MLK Boulevard, and Weaver Dairy Road Extension, which is home to Homestead Park, traditionally called Northern Community Park).
The new facility will not only provide IFC with much needed space but will, ultimately, provide needy men with a medical clinic, a place to sleep as they seek employment and lodging elsewhere and an exercise facility. According to the IFC’s website, the primary goal of the required GNP is “establishing mutual understanding and respect for program residents and the community.”
However, not all residents are pleased with the decision to relocate the shelter for reasons that remain relatively unclear. Some in the Homestead Park community, as I found out, feel their voices have not been heard.
In an email addressed to “friends and neighbors” and sent to residents of the Homestead Park community on September 23, 2011, Mark Peters and Lisa Ostrom invited neighbors to gather together to discuss the upcoming municipal elections and their frustrations associated with the proposed IFC shelter:
“This fall Homestead Park area residents have the opportunity to finally be heard. Our concerns about the new men's homeless shelter have been dismissed and ignored by our town council but we can change that by voting in the upcoming election…Elections in Chapel Hill are typically won or lost by very small margins, many times by only 50 to 100 votes so this means we have a real opportunity to make changes that will benefit us.”
Naturally, as both a concerned citizen and intern for OrangePolitics covering social justice issues in connection with municipal elections, such a gathering seemed a valuable glimpse into the world of real collective action. So, when asked to attend and report on what Peters and Ostrom called “a short organizational meeting” at the Larkspur clubhouse, I jumped at the chance.
However, my experience was disappointing and left me asking if these residents in the community really were concerned about all voices in the debate surrounding the IFC plan.
I arrived at 101 Larkspur Way around 6:45 pm, on September 28, 2011, and waited until a crowd of around 15 people arrived at the "clubhouse."
When I went inside, I was pleasantly greeted by Chapel Hill Town Council candidate Matt Czajkowski who asked if I lived in Homestead Park, to which I replied "No. I actually live on campus. I am a student at UNC." Czajkowski, with four years of experience on the Council, would certainly be a unique resource in this organizing process. I helped set up chairs and eagerly awaited a PowerPoint presentation several residents were busy setting up.
Czajkowski then asked me if I was involved with the UNC Young Democrats, to which I responded "Yes. Actually, I was the co-president last year," and what I thought was a peculiar question led him into a short discussion about students concerned with the voting location change from Morehead Planetarium (to off campus, 6 minutes away) having "no respect for voting." As a student activist who has worked diligently to register students and get my peers involved in the local electoral processes, it was an off-putting anecdote, to say the least.
Moments later, Town Council candidate Jon DeHart (a resident of Larkspur) arrived. I expected the subsequent discussion would be fruitful and insightful into resident-council relations.
After a resident (I assume overhearing my conversation) asked me if I had ever heard Winston Churchill's famous statement that if we are not in the liberal party in our twenties, we have no heart, and if we are not in the conservative party in our forties, we have no brain, I took a seat and Lisa Ostrom, one of the organizers, asked if we were all residents.
I raised my hand and told her I lived on campus. She then asked how I found out about the meeting, and I told her politely that I was an intern for OP this semester, to which she responded by asking to speak with me outside.
Naturally complying, I walked outside with her.
She thanked me for coming but said they were not ready for the press yet and that the meeting was closed for only residents. I told her the invite merely said the meeting was open to residents, and that children were welcome, but made no reference to being “closed” or being exclusively for residents. She apologized for the lack of clarity and gave me her business card.
Ostrom went on to say that they needed to organize first, but would be happy to speak to press later.
She said they were just "townies" and I told her thank you. I left wondering if I too am a “townie,” since I have spent the last four years of my life working, volunteering, living and paying taxes in this community.
I am sure the meeting was productive. Likewise, I have no issue with citizens organizing in private (everyone has a right to do that). But, allowing two candidates for Town Council (one of which is not a resident of the Homestead Park community) to remain in attendance at a meeting billed as a neighborhood event, while asking me to leave, seems inconsistent.
I asked myself, what are these people saying? What is being said that I, as a student-journalist, should be guarded from? What, in truth, is so private about citizens organizing? And who, in reality, is welcome at this gathering?
Let the events speak for themselves. Fifteen or so concerned citizens gathered together with two candidates for Chapel Hill Town Council in a posh clubhouse in an affluent neighborhood of one of the most educated communities in the nation while men and women a few miles away struggled to secure dinner. Organizing in private is acceptable. However, billing an event as a community event and then deciding who can stay is not.