'Their home until they find something better': Housing Orange County's homeless

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Rex Mercer, left, is a social worker at IFC, the Inter-Faith Council, helping to provide temporary places of residence for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Corey Root, center, is the Homeless Program coordinator for Orange County. Behind her is a wall covered in different cases of people she plans to enter into the system. Mike Alston, right, was previously homeless and now works as a dishwasher at Pizzeria Mercato.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Mike Alston's name. The story has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the correction.

This story is the first in a series looking at homelessness in Orange County, told through the stories of those most familiar. Affordable housing is considered one of the three keys to ending homelessness.

Corey Root found the American dream overseas.

She sold her home in 2007, affording her the means to bounce around Europe, Asia and Africa for five years, with some of that time being spent working for Doctors Without Borders. 

After her travels, Root sees the American interaction with extreme poverty and homelessness as an uncomfortable one.

According to her, that’s a good thing.

It’s our fundamental instinct that there is something profoundly wrong with someone forced to sleep on a bench, Root said. That people deserve better. It’s why we look away — why we feel a kind of guilt when we walk past people asking for money. So whether you choose to spare change on the street, donate to a charity or volunteer your time — take heart in the action of wrestling with your search for the right thing to do.

In March, Root started a new job as the Homeless Program Coordinator for Orange County. So, she’s new, but she’s experienced with the demands of her role. The Orange County position is an opportunity for her to zoom in; she used to oversee 79 North Carolina counties.

And Orange County happens to be relatively high on resources and low on homelessness.

“We have a very manageable problem, and we can end homelessness,” Root said.

If that sounds like a bold declaration, she’ll agree, it is. But she’s optimistic about Orange County. The federal definition of ending homelessness includes making sure that everyone who is waiting for housing gets housed and that people who leave housing are able to find it again within 14 days. 

“We are doing some stuff that’s very innovative, not just locally but nationally,” she said.

These are the three keys to addressing homelessness, she says: affordable housing, services and income.

For everything Orange County has going for it, the affordable housing situation, Root said, has reached “crisis level.”

Root says there are not enough units out there, but there’s also the challenge that landlords can be unwilling to rent to people who are low-income or who have been homeless or struggled in the past.

A question she gets a lot is: “What do you do about people who choose to be homeless?”

She said that, given the right model, research shows people want homes.

“Maybe not on offer one, maybe not offer 15,” Root says. “But there’s a lot of success if you can have housing with low barriers.”

***

Nothing about Inter-Faith Council’s HomeStart Residential Facility is quite as it appears. From the playground-equipped exterior, it might be confused for an elementary school. Yet inside the central building’s muted walls lives a lively teal space with modernist fixtures and furniture — luxuries funded by donations. 

This is a place for women and children; two buildings on the premises are for families, typically single mothers and their kids, and another houses women without children.

Rex Mercer, a social worker whose office resides behind the teal walls, said the goal of HomeStart is to provide safe and rent-free housing while its residents work towards their goals. By governmental definition, this is a shelter. 

But Mercer said that there is a stigma with that term: shelter. So, he stays away from it: “For them, this isn’t just a roof over their head; it’s their home until they find something better.”

He’s wearing a denim shirt with UNC’s overlaid logo stitched on. He holds three degrees. His latest, finished in 2014, is a master’s from the UNC School of Social Work. 

After 20 years in human resourcing and management roles for large corporations, a bout of unemployment in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis left Mercer reevaluating his life and his priorities. In 2009, he began volunteering with the IFC. A few years and one degree later, he is back with the organization, now in a full-time position. Basically, he says, he’s a case manager.

“I think there’s so many stereotypes and preconceived notions about people that are homeless and what they’re like, and that gets kinda busted wide open when you get to know them,” he said. “You see that they have the same aspirations as anybody else, they’ve just encountered more obstacles than most people have.”

One of those obstacles is affordable housing. The average listing price for an Orange County home ranks fifth highest rate in the state, at $462,902, according to real estate company Trulia. And landlords, Mercer said, trying to minimize risk, might not want someone with a record of homelessness in their past to rent their space. He says people will often seek homes outside of the county to live more affordably. 

He notes that the University influences the housing situation — students have their own needs for affordable housing, and they're often prioritized. And then, there is the highly educated population that can often afford more expensive homes.

But overall, he called the University a “net positive” for the vulnerable in community. Specifically, he praised the contributions of the School of Social Work, School of Government and student volunteers; the last includes the lifeblood of groups like the Community Empowerment Fund, a student group that works with people experiencing homelessness. 

The best-case scenario, he says, is a world where the community needs fewer facilities like the one he works at. And he is concerned with underlying issues that perpetuate the cyclical nature of homelessness and poverty, like a lack of affordable housing and inadequate funds for social services.

“Sometimes I feel like we’re just a Band-Aid in that there’s something deeper that needs to be treated," he said. "And that only happens through public policy.”

Part of Mercer's job entails introducing the women and children at HomeStart to skill-building programs. Some are analogous to the programs at the corresponding men’s shelter, Community House, like resume building and money management. Others are more specifically tailored; there’s an upcoming play session for the kids designed to foster social skills, and a local organization, KidSCope, will work with the women on the parenting challenges of their situations. 

Outside facades don’t tell the full story of facilities like this — nor of the people who need them.

“The people that live here are really no different than anyone else I interact with in my life,” Mercer said. “They are just in a different circumstance.”

HomeStart consistently has a waiting list. Most of the time, Mercer said, once the residents move on, they don’t come back.

“We just see a slice of their life here, and then hopefully they’re off to bigger and better things.”

***

I catch Mike Alston between the end of his shift at Carrboro’s Pizzeria Mercato and the 4:00 bus he takes home. We’re on a bench outside Weaver Street Market. He’s friendly, and when he laughs, it sounds as if he's surprised. 

It’s not insignificant that he’s waiting for a bus home; he spent two years in the Inter-Faith Community Home before finding a place of his own.

“The shelter, they helped me a lot,” Alston said. “Gave me place to stay. Roof over my head. It wasn’t my own, but they did good until I got my own.”

Alston moved from Durham to Chapel Hill, where he feels safer. He calls the people here friendlier. And he agrees that UNC is better than Duke.

On Saturdays, he went uptown to get lunch and while he was out, he would go to the CEF workshops at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. It can’t hurt, he figured. Opportunity class. They talk about skills, like budgeting and banking, and when you graduate from a class, you get a certificate. He got his laminated. 

With skills and patience came a job and a place of his own. You’re not supposed to go back to the shelter after you move out, he said. But he did — to help serve lunch. And as an alumnus, he still goes to opportunity class.

His bus rolls up. We say goodbye, he gets on the bus, and he goes home.

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