Tomorrow, the Raleigh City Council will vote on whether to open a one-stop, multi-services center for the city’s homeless population in a vacant, 30,000 square-foot building. It’s located beside the South Wilmington Street Center, a shelter for men. The vote has been three years in the making.
In the summer of 2013, police threatened Raleigh pastor Hugh Hollowell with arrest when he and members of his Love Wins Ministries were handing out biscuits and coffee to homeless folks near the Moore Square transit station. The incident prompted a nationwide outcry, and, as a result, the city found a vacant warehouse near Moore Square to provide meals to the city’s homeless population when the shelters are closed.
The Oak City Outreach Center, as it was named, was intended only as a temporary solution until a long-term space was identified. That new space would function as a place for volunteers to serve weekend meals and as a one-stop, multi-services intake center for people to shower, do laundry, and make phone calls.
This summer, rumors began circulating that the new center would open in the South Wilmington Street building, and some southeast Raleigh residents were displeased. They said they already experience problems with men from the shelter loitering in their neighborhood, using Chavis Park as a restroom, and breaking in to abandoned houses.
At least one member of the council, Kay Crowder, has gone on the record opposing this location for the center, because of fears about how it will impact Dorothea Dix Park. It’s not clear how the rest of the council will vote tomorrow, but Hollowell, the pastor of Biscuitgate notoriety, says it’s imperative that the council gives its approval to the space.
We spoke with Hollowell at his Bloodworth Street office on Friday.
Why do you think this is a good location for the new center?
It’s accessible to downtown. It’s on a bus route. It’s near other services that are currently being used. There’s also a lot of room. That gives us more opportunities to do things. From a pragmatic standpoint, finding something that is large and available and downtown doesn’t happen often, especially at an affordable price. It’s a really good location. Given the location near the factory and the men’s shelter, it’s not in the path of future development. That should theoretically reduce the backlash or NIMBYism.
What would you say to nearby residents who have expressed concerns about the center opening on South Wilmington Street?
When your current services aren’t sufficient, the solution is to add more services. The men’s shelter turns away men every night because there aren’t enough beds. When they turn people away during the day, there’s nowhere for them to go. This will provide people a place to go. It will be shelter during the day, and it will help provide people who currently don’t have easy access to services the services they need.
If the concern is “There are homeless people in my neighborhood,” then there’s two ways you can deal with that: One is to make it easier for them to not be homeless. The other is for them to not be in your neighborhood. One of those is a compassionate response, and one of them is a selfish response. We have to decide, as a city, whether we’re going to take the compassionate response or the selfish response.
Is it your understanding that the center will offer services to people who may otherwise be out on the streets during the day?
There are so many levels of benefits. Shana [Overdorf, executive director of the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness] can give the official line. But from our perspective, the biggest benefit is centralized access to services. Right now, medical help is over here, mental health help is over here, food stamps are here. It’s all scattered. It’s hard for those of us who have high executive functioning to navigate the government. It’s even more so when your life is in chaos.
Being homeless means there’s nowhere you’re allowed to be. No one ever said, “I’m glad the homeless man showed up today.” So it will provide a place for people to be. If it did nothing but that, that would be a huge benefit. It would also provide showers, lockers, things that enable people to have more control over their life.
The proposed location is in Southeast Raleigh, a historically African-American area that’s been underserved by the city. Do you understand some of the residents’ hesitations to have the center open there?
I too am a Southeast Raleigh resident. Just from a sheer inventory standpoint, if we wanted to put it on Fayetteville Street, we couldn’t. The reality is Southeast Raleigh has the inventory right now if we’re looking for large amounts of space. If I had my perfect dream list, it would be closer to the Moore Square bus station, but there isn’t any inventory there. Pragmatically, it’s not going in North Hills. This is what we can do, and it’s the right thing to do.
What are ways to navigate this with the residents who have these concerns?
Generally, we are most afraid of things we don’t know. I recognize I probably know 250 people who are experiencing homelessness by name, and most people don’t. It doesn’t scare me at all, but that’s because of who I know.
I would encourage people who have concerns to talk with people like myself or to Shana. Come tour the Oak City Outreach Center downtown on a weekend. Get to know some people. I’m happy to make those introductions. Because what you find is that people who are experiencing homelessness are people who are having an experience. I would encourage them to come down, call me up. Likewise, if having me come and answer questions at a CAC meeting would help, I’m delighted to do that, too.
Members of your congregation are likely to use the center. What are some practical ways it will help them?
The big thing you have to understand about homelessness is that it’s about loss—loss of home and a job, loss of choice, loss of connection to the larger society. Having a place like this where you can shower, wash your clothes, store your things, or just be during the day enables you to have control over your life. The ability to have greater control over their lives, wear clean clothes, lock away their valuables, that is huge. And this is now where we will all share food. It will be an important part of our plan against food insecurity.
Do council member Crowder’s concerns about Dix Park seem valid to you?
From what I understand, the full timeline for the park is many years out. Raleigh is growing at an incredible rate. If we don’t do something now to take proactive steps about homelessness, in twenty years, we’ll have a park full of people living in tents. There’s a difference between Central Park now and Central Park in the ’80s. If we don’t do this now, Dix Park will look like Central Park in the ’80s. If you care about what Dix Park is going to look like, this is the thing you have to do.
Overall, how do you think the city has handled the process of finding a space for the center?
It took longer than it needed to. I wish it had been faster, but I’ll take it now.
If the proposal doesn’t pass, what could happen?
We’re paying attention. We have lots of people paying attention, and we—myself and Love Wins, and the people who formed the task force originally behind this—we strongly want this to happen. If it doesn’t happen, there will be politicians who are going to have to answer for why it didn’t. As we remember from 2013, there are people from all over the country who want this to happen. So, we are really asking people to show up on Tuesday and remind the City Council we are expecting them to keep their promise.