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New street outreach program reimagines public safety, homelessness in Orange County

Since the pandemic started, the Chapel Hill Crisis Unit has been directing people who are homeless to stay day and night on the top of Wallace Parking Deck located on Rosemary Street.

As Donald Hardin left the headquarters of Orange County's new street outreach program last week, he paused by several people sitting on the wall outside the building and asked “How y’all doing?” 

Hardin continued and told them he would try to find a better place for them to rest their heads.

“They looked at me like ‘Who the heck is he?’” Hardin said.

He said he’d be back again and continued walking through downtown Chapel Hill. 

And he did come back. Monday was his first time on the street working for the Orange County Street Outreach, Harm Reduction and Deflection Program, a new partnership between the county's Partnership to End Homelessness and the Criminal Justice Resource Department.

The program is a peer and therapeutic-based outreach unit for those who experience homelessness.  This is something the Town has lacked for four years since the last program provider, Housing for New Hope, stopped working in Orange County. 

Thanks to Caitlin Fenhagen, director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department, and homeless programs coordinator Corey Root, a new program was proposed and implemented Oct. 5.

“My interest in this program, particularly, is to deflect people experiencing homelessness with behavioral health issues from the criminal justice system,” Fenhagen said. 

Root said she joined forces with Fenhagen two years ago when they both realized a street outreach program would be beneficial in their areas of work. 

“We were really needing some particular eyes on what was going on with the unsheltered populace to make sure that we're meeting their needs,” Root said. 

Two peer support navigators and a harm reduction deflection coordinator will focus on building relationships with locals who experience homelessness. With real-time engagement, the team can introduce them to immediate or permanent housing resources, health care resources or employment and training programs.

Hardin, one of the peer support navigators on the team, said he experienced homelessness during a period of his life after college. He said listening is key when it comes to helping those who experience homelessness. 

“When you get down the street like that, everybody got a different state of mind,” Hardin said. “And some might just want to cry, some just want someone to listen to them.” 

For those who experience homelessness, passing through the criminal justice system isn’t usually a one-time thing. Fenhagen said the cycle begins when police are called on scene, usually when the person is intoxicated, and there’s nowhere else to bring them but jail for a night. 

“They're not going to be held in custody so basically they're released when they're sober,” Fenhagen said. “Then they, you know, miss their court date because they have no way to get to court and the cycle just starts all over again.”

If a community member feels a situation involving individuals who experience homelessness needs intervention, Fenhagen said instead of calling 911 for the police, they should call the street outreach team at (919) 886-3351.

The program's proposal explains that recent national incidents of police brutality and a new urgency in addressing systemic racism in policing have led to a conversation about reinvestment in communities. 

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said he is excited about the start of the program. 

"Not because that's going to solve every problem but because there'll be much more precise and surgical interventions for that will lead to long-term positive outcomes," Blue said.

Whether it's a safety issue or significant criminal activity, Fenhagen said they want their social worker or peer navigator to help with de-escalation.

But the team has only just begun active outreach. 

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Yesterday, Hardin started his 2 p.m. shift by taking a couple who experienced homelessness to get a cup of coffee from Starbucks. He learned their stories and that they’ll need blankets and shelter for the cold weather to come. 

“They introduced themselves to me, mostly talking about life in general, or how long they been out there,” Hardin said. “So I’m just listening, mostly listening to them.”


@DTHCityState | 

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