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The Daily Tar Heel

Homelessness in Orange County more than just an isolated issue

But this data, based on a description from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, leaves out a broad population without stable, consistent places to live.

Couch surfers, people who move from place to place, are often invisible in the eyes of those who apportion local and federal aid.

Desmond Frierson, an outreach case worker for Housing for New Hope in Durham, said federal programs run by the agency don’t typically consider couch surfers eligible.

“Couch surfing is one of those behind the scenes things,” Frierson said.

“It is under the surface and we don’t necessarily notice it.”

Frierson added that a system of keeping track of people who are couch surfing could help the agency better understand what the barriers are and how Housing for New Hope could be helpful.

Finding stable housing

Chapel Hill Town Council member Nancy Oates, a proponent of expanding public transportation in lieu of the light rail, said other factors come into play when offering assistance to those who are unable to find stable housing.

“When you’re thinking about affordable apartments that people would move into, they need to be on an affordable transit line,” Oates said. “Transitional housing prepares people to live independently, but in Chapel Hill we don’t have affordable living for couch surfers, and that’s a real issue.”

Oates suggested that fixing this problem is complicated because it involves more than just fixing issues with affordable public housing.

According to Jamie Rohe, the programs coordinator with the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, those who experience homelessness and those who are declared homeless by the government are separate.

“(The definition) concerns people who are living in places not meant for human habitation, such as cars, streets, camps, unheated buildings. It also includes people who are staying in shelters,” Rohe said.

Rohe, who has worked with the partnership for six years, is in the process of leaving and has agreed to stand in until a new coordinator takes her place later this month. With her extensive experience in supporting people experiencing temporary or chronic homelessness, she emphasized that these people are capable, regardless of their current living situation.

“You don’t want to define a person by their current lack of housing. They are people first,” she said. “People experience homelessness but they are not homeless. This is part of a bigger issue about how we think about people.”

Rohe explained that adjusting people’s way of thinking is vital to the effectiveness of initiatives improving living conditions for those in need.

“The programs that are the most effective are those that see a very capable person first, with many positive qualities, and then giving those people an opportunity to help themselves,” she said.

Collecting accurate data

Rohe said while there should be more assistance provided to those who do not fall under the written definition of homelessness, counting people who move place to place, and tracking that number year-to-year is nearly impossible.

“Year-to-year, there is too much gray area and imprecision to capture the numbers of couch surfing people. But, if you are comparing people in the way the HUD does, we can capture this data,” she said.

This ‘rock and a hard place’ scenario is in part due to the broader issue of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in Orange County.

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Rohe said that while the situation is troubling, it is a reality in the United States.

But the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which operates on a national and local scale, is working to develop a by-name list of people who are chronically homeless and to find housing for them.

“It’s about triage,” Rohe said. “It is not about decent safe housing for all — that isn’t a reality in our country.”