People who are homeless and want to get out of the cold this weekend in Chapel Hill and Carrboro have few options, after a man died while sleeping in the parking garage of the Inter-Faith Council for Social Services.
The Jan. 7 death was one of two reported last week among the county’s homeless population as increasing COVID-19 cases and winter weather descended on the Triangle. This weekend could bring snow and ice, according to the National Weather Service.
Chapel Hill Police spokesman Alex Carrasquillo said the department’s crisis unit is giving winter gear bags to officers, so they can distribute them to people who lack adequate shelter over the weekend.
Each bag has a blanket, gloves, and socks, he said, noting that some jackets, beanies and scarves also are available.
The IFC operates Orange County’s only two homeless shelters: the Community Shelter for men and the 24-hour Project HomeStart emergency shelter for women and families experiencing homelessness. Both are located on Homestead Road in Chapel Hill.
The man who died at the IFC’s headquarters in Carrboro had been sleeping in the building’s garage on West Main Street. He was found dead just after 9 a.m., a police report said. The temperature had fallen into the mid-20s overnight.
IFC President Jackie Jenks told the Chapelboro radio station that the man was one of the IFC’s members and had volunteered with the nonprofit service agency.
Jenks announced the second death in a news release Friday. The man, who was a resident at the IFC’s Community House men’s shelter on Homestead Road, died after contracting COVID-19 in an outbreak there.
Neither man’s name has been released. The News & Observer’s efforts to reach Jenks were unsuccessful, but a worker at the IFC’s headquarters said people will no longer be allowed to sleep in the garage.
Jenks noted in the release that staff and volunteers are continuing to provide support to clients, along with regular meals and groceries at the shelter and the FoodFirst kitchen in Carrboro. They also continue to work with community partners to find permanent housing for residents experiencing homelessness.
“As a community of staff and volunteers who work daily to prevent this kind of devastating loss, we are grieving collectively and struggling to process the reality that this could happen at our doorstep,” Jenks said in the release. “The man, like too many other people, was experiencing homelessness and found connection and support here.”
The shelters were able to use federal emergency funding to move residents into local hotels in 2020, however, that arrangement ended in November.
COVID cases at the shelter
In early December, Jenks announced the shelter was dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. The state Department of Health and Human Services reported Tuesday that there are still six residents with COVID at the Chapel Hill shelter.
Residents who tested positive were isolated in hotel rooms in Orange and Durham counties, she said. Shelter staff have offered more COVID tests, moved residents around to reduce the risk of exposure, and limited interactions between staff at different sites.
But because of the ongoing health concerns, the shelter has not been able to open up a room where 17 overflow cots are typically provided for people on cold-weather nights, said Rachel Waltz, the county’s homeless programs manager.
Orange County’s Street Outreach, Harm Reduction and Deflection (SOHRAD) team and its coordinated entry helpline are always seeking other options, including room at shelters in Burlington, Durham and Raleigh, but there just isn’t anything immediate right now, Waltz said.
The IFC shelter is limited to 52 beds for residents and 17 emergency cots for cold nights from November to April under the town’s Good Neighbor Plan, adopted in 2012 to govern shelter operations.
The Chapel Hill Police Department lobby also has been used in the past for emergency shelter. Carrasquillo said individual officers have helped homeless residents on a case-by-case basis and the situation “will remain that way given current COVID-19 concerns.”
In 2018, Jenks proposed adding more overflow cots for cold-weather nights at the Homestead Road shelter, but the conversation appears to have languished.
Community House provided shelter for 151 men last year, and HomeStart gave another 38 women, 43 parents and 34 children at safe place to stay, according to an IFC report.
Another 673 households benefited from emergency rent and utility payments. The Community Kitchen and Market in Carrboro served 25,531 meals and handed out 14,153 bags of groceries and fresh produce.
The report noted that 41% of shelter residents were able to find permanent housing.
Without supportive services and shelter, people experiencing homelessness also are much more likely to suffer an early death, Waltz said. It’s a symptom of larger gaps in the system, whether that’s a lack of funding, staffing or housing options, she said.
“We don’t have enough affordable housing, we don’t have enough housing with supports, like rapid rehousing or permanent supportive housing, so as a result of that, people stay in shelter longer and then there’s not enough flow in that system” to move them to permanent housing, Waltz said.