Twenty-seven years ago, I found myself as a journalist reporting on Chapel Hill’s argument over where exactly to place the homeless shelter and soup kitchen in our town. What strikes me today is how little has changed in nearly three decades.
Now I find myself listening to citizens of Carrboro and others in this area confront the idea of moving what currently is called the community kitchen to Carrboro’s Main Street downtown. Despite the passage of time, what I’m hearing remains the same, the same fights over who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s being more realistic and who’s got a firmer grasp of the greater good, who occupies the stronger position and who holds the higher ground.
Years ago, several questions appeared absent from the scene. These same questions remain less central this time:
Why in this richest country of ours do we have this problem at all?
What is wrong with us as a society that we seem unable to understand that we are moving toward the institutionalization of food insecurity and being unsheltered?
Who exactly are the hungry and homeless we’re talking about? What are their stories? What do they themselves want?
Moreover, why given nearly 30 years of time have we failed to make more significant progress to solve our issues of hunger and homelessness?
If anything, things may be worse today.
Last month, I traveled to Ghana, a developing country in West Africa. When I returned to Washington, D.C., I was stunned by how monumental our buildings are, how developed our highway system is, how sleek our airports are. I was also stunned by the sight of dozens of homeless in one of D.C.’s parks as they gathered around a long table where volunteers were dishing out free food. Why have we not solved this problem even in our nation’s capital?
Back in the late 1980s, I spent one cold day in February being hungry and homeless in Chapel Hill to report on this story. My day began with breakfast at Chapel Hill’s soup kitchen, then located on Merritt Mill Road. After that, I spent the morning at the Inter-Faith Council’s offices, had lunch at the soup kitchen and then wandered around all afternoon.
I encountered a group of guys I’d met at breakfast in front of Lincoln Center and then made my way to downtown Chapel Hill. I saw others I’d met at breakfast and lunch, people standing outside the bank, hunkered down inside the library and scooping up change from the sidewalk. I returned to eat dinner in the soup kitchen and headed to the homeless shelter in the old police station for part of the night.
As I wrote then: “What is so unsettling to me, after a day with the homeless and the hungry in North Carolina’s most exclusive town, is the capriciousness of their fate. Used to be in America, you could beg, borrow, or bribe your way to a ticket to a better station in life. But these days there seems to be no buses pulling out on that idealistic highway of freedom and reform.”
It’s been 27 years. Aren’t we better than this? Community kitchens and homeless shelters were, I thought, designed to be stop-gap measures. Perhaps, it’s time to quit arguing and, instead, take stronger measures to end hunger and homelessness. If Salt Lake City is achieving this, why can’t we?
Linda Haac lives in Carrboro. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org