On March 24, the Carrboro Board of Alderpeople held the first of what I expect will be several public hearings on the Inter-Faith Council’s (IFC) proposal to move the Community Kitchen from its current site in Chapel Hill to Main Street in Carrboro.
Before this hearing, several downtown business owners and residents had raised concerns about the proposal. Their concerns, based on locally lived experiences, included waking up to find a homeless individual asleep on their porch, human defecation in their garden, loitering and vandalism.
I do not wish to contradict or challenge those concerns. Some of those speaking against this project volunteer with the IFC and with other social-service agencies in the community. They are good people with legitimate concerns.
For the Community Kitchen project to move forward, the community needs to openly and honestly address those concerns while also focusing on the needs of people in our community who are hungry. If we work together, we can find a way through this issue. For me, the first step is to understand the issues.
A 2007 survey of Community Kitchen visitors found that just over half of diners were regular visitors, with nearly one-third receiving multiple meals each day. By 2016, the number of regular diners has increased significantly while those who are using the kitchen for multiple meals each day has decreased. During that same time period, the number of individuals who use the kitchen occasionally has declined. This use pattern indicates that today the kitchen is being used by local residents rather than transient visitors.
More of the regular kitchen diners are also using the Food Pantry today. The pantry provides groceries once a month to households in Chapel Hill or Carrboro or to individuals who work here. In other words, the majority of those who dine at the Community Kitchen are already coming to Carrboro for food and/or financial assistance, and they have the facilities to prepare meals on their own.
The Partnership to End Homelessness in Orange County estimates that 80-90 percent of the local homeless population are currently housed. The 2016 Point-in-Time count identified 15 unsheltered individuals. This doesn’t include the couch surfers or those who live in their cars. The marginally housed are the most challenging group to count as those individuals work hard to keep a low profile. That desire to stay invisible makes it unlikely that they are contributing to the concerns of Carrboro’s downtown business owners and residents.
According to the Social Security Administration the average Social Security benefit is about $1,300 per month ($15,800 annually). Payments for low-income and/or disabled workers is even lower. Imagine trying to pay rent, utilities and food in Chapel Hill or Carrboro on that income! Even for someone who earns what the Orange County Living Wage organization calculates to be a living wage ($11.25 with employer paid health insurance), the Community Kitchen is a necessary resource for stretching limited financial resources out over a month.
Finally, Carolina Demography has determined that 64 percent of the low-income (poor) population of Chapel Hill and Carrboro live within a 1-mile radius of the proposed Community Kitchen site at 110 W. Main St. The majority of those who receive a holiday meal from the IFC live within walking distance of the proposed site, and 11 of the 28 sites identified as high need for summer lunches for school children fall within this same zone.
All of these indicators lead to one conclusion: the vast majority of those who use the Community Kitchen today are the elderly, the working poor, the struggling families of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and they live within easy walking distance or bus access to the Carrboro site.
We will never achieve 100 percent support for this project, but for those who have concerns, I encourage you to dig further into this data. For those who have threatened boycotts of local business owners who have spoken against this project, I concur with Alderpeople Jacquelyn Gist and Randee Haven O’Donnell that vilifying one another is not the Carrboro Way.
No one should be hungry in a community such as ours, but neither should anyone in our community be afraid of retribution for sharing their concerns.
You can reach Terri Buckner at email@example.com.