Wilmington, NC – Last November, carpenter Robert Ham started suffering from severe hernias. Uninsured and living paycheck to paycheck, the eight thousand dollar operation was out of the question, unless he became poor enough to qualify for indigent care.
Which is exactly what he did.
When the pain got too bad for him to buckle on his tool belt, Ham quit his job, moved his belongings into storage, and checked into a homeless shelter.
Now recovering from his operation, Ham calls Wilmington's Good Shepherd Ministries home. He's hoping to get back on his feet in the next few months, but getting into an apartment could be difficult - rents are high and Ham has a prison record.
"If I look too far in the future, it tends to get depressing," Ham says, sitting on the side of the shelter's common room, as other residents bustle through after-lunch chores. "Because, sometimes, especially being here, it's... If you worry about this and worry about this this, it just becomes too overwhelming. So I just, I let go and let God."
While Ham is trusting in faith, the region's homeless service providers are scrambling to find more options for people like him.
There are only 236 units of transitional and permanent supportive housing in Wilmington, according to city numbers, less than a quarter of what's needed. Both transitional and permanent facilities require on-site management and strict rules for residents' behavior.
Those trying to create more housing for the homeless say tolerant neighbors are a big part of the equation, if only they could find some.
Wilmington realtor Jody Wainro is on both the region's Affordable Housing Coalition and the committee developing the Ten Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. Wearing both those hats, she's heard a lot of the arguments residents have against low-income and homeless housing.
"They hear, 'oh we're going to have to have affordable housing.' And they automatically think, the people in the woods are coming out to join our neighborhood," she laughs, "and that's just not the case at all."
Wainro blames rising real estate prices for making local homeowners even less tolerant.
"So you automatically assume that if you can't afford a $150,000, 200,000 house you are poor or you bring this stigma around you that you are going to bring this neighborhood down," she says, "I think it's always been there, but not as bad as it is today, just because of the prices in our area."
For an illustration of how difficult it can be to create more homeless housing, look no further than the west side of Wilmington's Greenfield Lake, where the Adrian B. Rhodes Marine Reserve Center rests on several acres of highly-sought-after land.
Next week the City Council votes on what it wants to do with the property after the military decommissions it in 2011. Among proposals on the table is a bid to create what's been dubbed the Lakeside Partnership Center, a joint effort by several local homeless groups to turn the facility into 26 units of supportive housing, divided between transitional and permanent.
Federal rules make the homeless a number one priority, and the feds have the final say. But on the local level, that proposal is getting a much cooler reception.
The Sunset Park Neighborhood Association has voiced strong opposition. And just a little ways around the lake, resident Mary Sljaka worries formerly homeless neighbors could be the beginning of even more trouble.
Sitting in her living room, with a yard full of blazing azaleas just outside the window, Sljaka says she hopes to live out her life in this neighborhood. "But I want to live here in safety and security. I don't want the property values to go down and end up with drug dealers next door and prostitutes on the other side," she says.
Numbers from the Wilmington police department show that two similar transitional facilities, the Ashley Center for veterans and Fourth Quarter Transitional Living, together averaged about a call a week from officers last year, with nearly half of those for non-criminal services, such as serving warrents.
As for property values, studies in other communities show that homeless housing rarely hurts nearby prices, according Dennis Culhane, professor of Social Welfare Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Culhane says his reviews of the research turn up the importance of facilities having strong on-site management.
"Having that kind of ongoing contact with the tenants usually assures that people are behaving as good neighbors and if they aren't, then they lose their housing," he says.
Still, Shlaka wonders, if Wilmington is so concerned to housing the homeless, why doesn't the city force wealthier neighborhoods to accept transitional housing?
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