The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday August 9th

A look at homelessness in Orange County: Services, nonprofits work to lower the numbers

“Once I am well, I will find a job, then get back on my feet,” said Ronald Benfield, a resident at the Inter-Faith Council Community House.

Benfield, after having been incarcerated for 18 months, lost everything he owned while in prison and has been on the streets for two months.

After being released, Benfield became ill with a staph infection and lost an arm, making it difficult to find work again.

Benfield currently works with the Community Empowerment Fund and Freedom House Recovery Center, in hopes of finding his footing again.

Homelessness in the Chapel Hill area cannot be ignored, and organizations like the IFC and Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness work to find permanent housing for the large numbers of homeless people in the area.

“We have a crisis in our community of trying to find enough affordable rental housing for people who are homeless,” said Jamie Rohe, program coordinator for the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.

Benfield said since Chapel Hill is a college town, and there are so many UNC Hospitals employees, the housing situation in the area is heavily affected.

In 2015, Orange County, including Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough, has seen the highest number of homeless people since 2011, according to the Point-in-Time counts taken annually at the end of January.

The difficulties homeless people face can be attributed to various causes, whether a loss of full-time work or sudden illness.

“What I’ve learned about homelessness is that a lot of it that just doesn’t fit the stereotype of homelessness,” said Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens. “Any one person’s story can be very, very different from anyone else’s.”

Of the 129 homeless people counted by Point-in-Time, 109 of them had found emergency shelter or transitional housing, but the other 20 were not as fortunate. 

The number of adults without children with them on the night of the count was 101. Twenty-five of them have been classified as chronically homeless, meaning they have a disability and have been homeless for at least a year or have been homeless at least four times in the past three years.

The biggest portion of homeless adults in Chapel Hill are mentally ill, making up 23 percent of the homeless population, followed by substance abuse disorder at 14 percent of the population. But in North Carolina, people with substance abuse disorder are the majority.

Rohe said there is a lack of social service available to help these people find permanent, affordable housing due to recent federal budget cuts.

“If you stumble and there is nothing there to catch you, you fall further and further and further and become more damaged because of it,” Rohe said.

The numbers of homeless people in the Chapel Hill area have been stable over the past five years, and efforts throughout the area to end homelessness have given Orange County the lowest counts throughout the state.

Other counties, such as Durham County and Buncombe County, had much higher counts of homeless people, totaling 813 and 627 people respectively.

Buncombe County’s trend followed that of Orange County, with a majority of the homeless population made up of the mentally ill, whereas Durham County followed the state trend.

While Orange County’s counts of homeless people are lower than any other county in the state, organizations like the IFC have made efforts to meet the lower counts of previous years.

Michael Reinke, executive director of the IFC, said in a community like Chapel Hill, where services are being provided, it is fundamental that the people providing the services can live in the community as well.

“When it comes down to it, the biggest problem we’re facing is that the people that are working in Chapel Hill and Carrboro cannot afford to live in Chapel Hill and Carrboro,” Reinke said.


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