In NC, a new model for helping the homeless

Homelessness is not just about being without a home. It’s about being without a friend, without a family member, without someone who can be your first resort, or your last. As Robert Frost wrote: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

The homeless are people who have lost that place. Their lives have been upended by violence, mental illness, addiction, incarceration or simple bad luck. They’ve burned their bridges, exhausted the sympathy of their friends and family or lost connections through death, transience or growing apart. On any given day, 1,000 people are homeless in Wake County and nearly 5,500 people here will experience homelessness over the course of the year. Those numbers miss many who are couch surfing, living in their cars or hidden in wooded areas.

Now an impressively coordinated and focused effort is giving a place of refuge and help to homeless people in Raleigh and Wake County that could be a model for other North Carolina cities. Oak City Cares, created by the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Raleigh, brings together homeless services from dozens of Wake County nonprofit and government providers with the support of the city, the county and the Partnership to End Homelessness. If separation causes homelessness, then connections — between agencies as well as people — can reduce it.

Kathy Johnson, Oak City Cares’ executive director, said, “That’s how to end homelessness — by coming around it as a community.”

Oak City Cares is a new and expanded version of the Oak City Outreach Center, which served the homeless since 2014 from a location near Moore Square in downtown Raleigh. In April, the service for the homeless opened a new location about a 20-minute walk from downtown at 1430 S. Wilmington St. Oak City Cares is housed in a former warehouse that the city and county paid $10.4 million to renovate and outfit.

Located next to the county’s men’s shelter, Oak City Cares does not provide beds for the homeless, but it provides almost everything else. The homeless people who come, referred to by staff and volunteers as “guests,” can find help with medical and mental health needs, transitioning from prison, protection from domestic violence, counseling for overcoming addictions, finding housing and work. And there’s help with everyday needs. The building provides showers, washers and dryers, a dining room where volunteer groups serve weekend meals and a children’s play room where children can go while their parents meet with counselors.

Oak City Cares is unusual in that it responds to many causes of homelessness in one location. That helps reduce the duplication of services offered by volunteer groups while identifying people with needs that are not being addressed. It’s a comprehensive effort that gets the most out of what had been scattered volunteer and government programs for the homeless.

Pat Cotham, a Mecklenburg County commissioner and an advocate for the homeless, said Oak City Cares could be a model for the rest of state, especially fast-growing cities like Charlotte.

“We just don’t have a one stop shop. I see a need for that,” she said. “We have independent groups that do a lot of great work but many people don’t know who or where they are and how to get in touch with them.”

Good news and homelessness rarely go together, but they are linked at Oak City Cares. The whole community is taking on the whole problem with what Johnson called a simple but until now elusive goal: “To make homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring.”

Oak City Cares needs volunteers. Sign up here at www.OakCityCares.org or call, 984-344-9605.