Folks gotta be more open minded

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on Saturday, April 28th:

Last week a number of neighbors of Freedom House, an addiction and mental illness treatment center in northern Chapel Hill, came out to speak against a proposed expansion of the facility.
Most of their concerns centered on safety. One neighbor, Cingai Chen, summed up the rhetoric pretty well by saying, "We are very worried about some day those patients will create a safety concern for our community."

The operative words in that statement are "some day." The reality is that Freedom House has been in our community for more than three decades and there have never been problems. It's a well-run place with tremendous success stories and has never created anything resembling a crime problem. There's no reason to believe expanding the facility would change that.

A similar thing happened in the early 1990s when the AIDS House opened up in Carrboro. There was a good deal of rhetoric about what "element" would be brought into the community and the negative impacts it could have. Now, nearly 20 years later, it's provided a great service for some of our residents and it's never brought a lick of trouble.

In both of these cases and others that have cropped up through the years, people are speaking out and acting mostly based not on factual information or what has happened but because of their fear of the unknown.

It's a basic human impulse, but it's also one worth staying away from as much as possible. Instead of making knee-jerk assumptions, folks should put more time and effort into learning about their neighbors and how to best coexist with them. It would make for a more harmonious community.

I think this is pertinent in particular to two issues that we will continue to face in the next couple of years.

One is panhandling downtown. I read a lot of angry letters to the editor about folks asking for money, and if it's keeping residents and visitors from feeling safe there then it's certainly an issue worth finding solutions for. But punitive measures are not the way to go.

The pragmatic reasons are that for the most part folks aren't doing anything illegal, and an ordinance passed four years ago intended to crack down on aggressive panhandling hasn't seemed to do anything to cut down on the complaints anyway.

Maybe even more importantly, morally it just is not right to punish people who are poor for doing what they can to sustain their lives. Instead of complaining about the panhandlers, it would be better for people to write letters to the editor suggesting feasible things we can do as a community to make it so that there is no need for folks to do it.

The way to eliminate the issue of panhandling is to work toward eliminating the issue of poverty. That's a much more productive exercise for a community than coming down on its most vulnerable residents.

The other issue forthcoming where I think it will be important for people to move beyond their fear of the unknown is the location of the new IFC men's shelter. This is an issue that has been around for years, but has not reached any sort of conclusion because every time a new site is discussed neighbors organize and blow the idea out of the water.

It's going to have to go somewhere, and I bet it won't be nearly as bad a neighbor as folks expect it to be. They may be leery because people often show up in the police beat with the IFC shelter listed as their home address. Interestingly though, a study done from April-July 2004 found that less than 10 percent of the folks who listed it as their address were actually staying there when they were arrested.

The perception of homeless people going around and committing crimes is completely overblown. I hope that wherever the shelter ends up being sited, folks in the area will go there and volunteer and get to know the residents instead of coming to public meetings and making negative generalizations. Again, taking the time to get to know that which is unknown will ease our fears and make us a better community.

Issues of homelessness, addiction and mental health tend to be difficult ones to talk about and deal with. But we have to be informed about them and step outside our comfort zones to get a greater understanding of the role they play in our community.

Shoving them aside or trying to leave them for some other neighborhood or group of people to deal with does not help us move forward. Conquering our fears of the unknown is essential to create the kind of society we want to live in.


Tom, what's your take on "panhandlers" lounging a Lot #5? You said you wanted to live there - would you fight efforts by your millionaire neighbors to enforce a stricter standard on the supposedly public plaza?

My guess is that the folks maintaining the "public" areas of Lot #5, Greenbridge and whatever other looming infrastructure that is coming to Downtown will want a stricter, and probably quite harsher, set of rules.

Note: I used "panhandlers" in quotes.

Tom, I agree. And I have to note that I have never been so disappointed in Chapel Hill as I was the night the neighbors of Freedom House came to the Planning Board to object to the expansion of the facility that had such little impact that they hadn't even been aware of it beforehand. That has to be the definition of ignorance.

I also agree about the issue of homelessness downtown. There is so much fearful handwringing about it that honest conversations seeking real solutions seem impossible.

I assume this expansion would be serving the same unobtrusive "element" as it currently does? Or would it be a different kind of clientel?

The "expansion" is just a building upgrade. The number of clients served is not increasing.

Today's Chapel Hill News includes the following letter to the editor about the sort of people who are in treatment at Freedom House:

Ex-convict was shining example

Our community lost a great man this past Thursday. Arjun Nicastro of Chapel Hill died of leukemia at UNC Hospitals. He worked as outpatient services coordinator for Freedom House in Chapel Hill.

The moment I met Arjun he struck me as the wisest, most compassionate soul I had ever encountered. When I learned a week later that he had overcome drug addiction and a long prison sentence to earn a bachelor's degree in social work and devote his life to helping others transform their lives, I was amazed. The last time I spoke with him he was completing his master's in social work.

Arjun lived as a shining example of the power to transform one's own life. An example of the power of kindness, love, and spiritual work. I was blessed to have known him, albeit for only a few months. That in itself is a testament to the profound impact that he had on those he encountered.

I am deeply saddened by his passing and my heart goes out to his wife, son, friends, and all those whose lives he touched through his work with Freedom House, the Human Kindness Foundation, and the criminal justice system.

Godspeed brother. I will never forget you. -- John Stokes, III, Chapel Hill

Great column Tom. Thanks for writing it.
Ruby, like you I was disappointed in the reaction of some of the neighbors but I think saddened might be an even more appropriate description - saddened that we still have so far to go in this community we like to think of as progressive. And saddened to think that if this reaction can occur here in Chapel Hill, what must similar facilities face in other, less-progressive communities.
At the Town Council public hearing, unlike the Planning Board review, several clients of Freedom House spoke and it really was heartening to hear from those being directly helped by the services that Freedom House provides. Hopefully, now that the neighbors know a little more about Freedom House, they will try to get to know them better and perhaps someday come to appreciate the tremendous service they provide to ALL of the community.

I didn't know about Arjun Nicastro, Mark. Thanks for passing that on. I remember being really impressed with him at a drug/family treatment court "Unity Day" celebration I went to at Freedom House a couple of years ago. I heard amazing stories at that event of lives that had been lost, finally found again. I am so sorry to hear he is gone.

Tom, that was an excellent column!

My impression is that the worried neighbors of Freedom House are concerned with safety issues and probably property values. The Parkside subdivisions are relatively new and very popular, their lots/houses sold quickly and prices increased by the week. They probably are one of the fastest selling subdivisions in Chapel Hill history. I suspect many of the owners are from elsewhere and had no idea of Freedom House's existence. From their comments, they are obviously blind to Freedom House's successful program and its value to our community. As a member of the church that is also their neighbor I have marveled at Freedom House's success and outreach.

Our downtown business community has been equally fearful and blind about our homeless citizens/visitors. Instead of the boring, limited and uncreative choices they have made to attract our community away from the malls, they have laid their woes on the homeless/panhandlers and the IFC shelter/kitchen. Give them a form and they will simper and struggle to lay out their fears in the most euphemistic terms possible. They have begged the Council to move the shelter out of downtown; a few have offered big bucks to the IFC if they will make the shelter disappear. In one to one discourse they will give you whispered anecdotes of homeless/panhandler atrocities, and frightened matrons fleeing in their Beemers back to Southpoint. I highly suspect these tales but put out into the public these tales have taken a life of their own to be repeated around pool and deck gatherings.

We need to educate and sooth our Parkside neighbors and our worthy merchants of the downtown. What will we do with the public plaza on Lot 5? Ooooooooh...dear me.

The concerns of the residents are not a simple matter of ignorance. There have been instances of loud noise and questionable language later in the evening from Freedom House residents. To my knowledge, these are realtively rare (monthly or less?) but do happen.

Just to be clear, the Parkside I HOA has not, as a group, decided to support or oppose the Freedom House expansion. Talking with some of my neighbors, it is clear different opinions exist of Freedom House and its expansion. The opinions appear to be independent of whether or not residents have lived in Chapel Hill for many years or not. Residents who are otherwise in support of Freedom House are as likely to be unaware of the work they do and its support of our community.


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