111115_karl-merritt.pngOperation Inasmuch is a Fayetteville-based nonprofit that provides a myriad of services to the city’s homeless population. The organization’s stated purpose is “to go outside the church walls to a world in need, offering the talents and gifts with which we have been blessed.” 

To that end, Inasmuch has submitted an application for a Special Use Permit that will allow for construction of a 40-bed homeless shelter for men located diagonally across from the organization’s primary building at 531 Hillsboro Street. The proposed site is next to Saint Luke AME Church.  The Fayetteville City Council held a public hearing on Aug. 24 regarding the application. This meeting concluded with council members directing city staff to get answers to several questions and report to the council at a future meeting when a decision on the application is to be made. I understand that meeting is scheduled for Nov. 9, two days before this column will appear in Up & Coming Weekly

My aim here is to examine the primary points made by those on either side of this issue and reach some reasonable conclusion as to the appropriate course of action. Since my thoughts will be published after council will hopefully have decided this matter, my contribution might only be in providing information that will help citizens assess the council’s decision. 

A starting point is to accurately define, accurately label, what it is Operation Inasmuch wants to build. It is repeatedly referred to as a “homeless shelter.” I did so in opening; however, my examination of the total picture says what they want to do is closer to supportive housing than to a simple shelter. 

A research report on the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness website titled Affordable and Supportive Housing says of supportive housing, “…the most successful intervention for ending chronic homelessness is permanent supportive housing, which couples affordable, community-based housing with supportive services that target the specific needs of an individual or family.” 

Based on this statement, I conclude that what Operation Inasmuch is proposing is more supportive housing than it is a shelter. This labeling matters significantly when examining the impact of the proposal. 

The above conclusion is based on the procedures and rules that will apply to residents coupled with programs that will be provided to them. As opposed to what happens in a shelter, residents of this facility will sign-in during breakfast at Inasmuch, be allowed to remain in the new facility over time while leaving their belongings there during the day and pay a fee. Further, these residents will be served breakfast five days a week and have access to job-search training and computers, entrepreneurial skills-building and alcohol and drug abuse counseling along with assistance in locating employment. They will also get to interact with volunteer men in activities such as Bible study, mentoring and general conversation, all of which help build self-worth that is critical to successful living. Those who do well in this facet of the Inasmuch outreach receive an opportunity to move into one of the organization’s seven homes. What is defined here is not a shelter, but closer to supportive housing.

The fact that this facility is far more supportive housing than a shelter is important because it allows for addressing the objection that the facility will drive down property values. The Furman Center’s research report titled “The Impact of Supportive Housing on Surrounding Neighborhoods: Evidence from New York City” concludes as follows: “The findings show that the value of properties within 500 feet of supportive housing do not drop when a new development opens and show steady growth relative to other properties in the neighborhood in the years after the supportive housing opens. Properties somewhat further away from the supportive housing (between 500 and 1,000 feet away) show a decline in value when the supportive housing first opens, but their prices then increase steadily relative to other properties in the neighborhood.”

Further, Inasmuch has seven houses in the Hillsboro area that serve as homes to residents who were homeless, but now have a place to live. These individuals work at regular jobs and pay rent. They also have access to the programs of the organization. These homes clearly fit the definition of “supportive housing” although individuals opposed to the Inasmuch project insist that they are shelters and argue that no more shelters should be placed in the neighborhood. Under Inasmuch control, the total tax value of these properties has increased by approximately 254 percent. The primary building at 531 Hillsboro Street was donated by Saint Luke AME Church. The tax value at the time of donation was $77,933. After renovations by Inasmuch, that value is now $495,587. All of this speaks not only to the positive property value impact of Operation Inasmuch, but also to the organization’s track record.

In the public hearing, one supportive speaker stated that Operation Inasmuch does not receive any funding from the City of Fayetteville. Councilman Chalmers McDougald said he thought the organization was in the budget. Hearing this, I thought he was saying these funds were from taxes paid to the city by residents. As it turns out, Inasmuch does receive $20,000per year from a Community Development Block grant for food, which is provided to the city by Housing and Urban Development, a federal agency. It is a local decision to pass those funds to Operation Inasmuch. So, in a city that has alleviating homelessness as a priority, this organization is prepared to through cash and in-kind donations, build a much needed facility, something that should be celebrated. But instead, it is accused by opponents of misrepresentation because a supporter of the project who did not know about the federal funds misspoke. I cannot see in this point a legitimate reason for opposition to the project.

I talked with Sue Byrd, executive director of Operation Inasmuch, about her organization’s proposal. My view of the public hearing indicates Pastor Artie Odom Jr., Saint Luke AME Church, is instrumental in leading opposition to this project. I made attempts to contact Pastor Odom by phone and letter, but did not hear from him prior to writing this column.

It seems to me the facts here present a situation requiring council members to do far more than hear responses to their questions in a politically and emotionally-charged meeting and then make a decision. This situation requires more than mere staff work. What’s needed is council involvement beyond the routine to bring divergent groups and interests together to do what is good and fair for the whole city. More and more, I am convinced the political process in this city and nation has deteriorated to the point this might be impossible. By the time this column is published, I suppose a test will have come on Nov. 9 regarding my declining confidence in our political system. 

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