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Room At The Inn

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Until recently, few people in Charlotte could have distinguished between an SRO and a UFO. Neither had ever been sighted within the city limits. But since the proposal to build a Single Room Occupancy hotel on North Davidson Street became public several weeks ago, opinions for and against the project have hit the media and enlivened local politics.

As you probably know by now, an SRO is a building that houses a part of the homeless population, a way of providing a stable, if temporary, home base for people struggling to get their lives back in order. These are folk who have passed background checks, some already with jobs, the rest clawing their way back up the social ladder as best they can. But to judge by some of the rhetoric of the project's opponents, these residents are more like twin-headed predators from Mars.

Suffice it to say that there's been a lot of uninformed criticism, some of it from people who should know better. But in this climate of media-hyped opposition, the city council behaved admirably last week when it unanimously approved the project.

My own backing for the project has been questioned on the grounds that I "support the facility on North Davidson Street, but wouldn't want it in my Dilworth neighborhood." On the contrary, an SRO could be very well located in parts of Dilworth if land prices allowed it. Some years ago I helped with the design and development of a Hope Haven halfway house for recovering addicts in Dilworth; to the best of my knowledge there have been no problems with that facility nestled quietly in one of our city's more affluent neighborhoods.

I find the opposition to a scheme like the North Davidson SRO both surprising and totally predictable. It's predictable because this kind of special housing for the less affluent and less fortunate members of our society -- a building type new to Charlotte, but common in other cities --arouses latent prejudice in even educated and otherwise progressive people. It's surprising because the siting, in the middle of a worn-out industrial area, is many blocks away from the fledgling arts district, and separated from it by a large highway overpass. To say this area is congruous with NoDa is very misleading.

The project is sited in this uninspiring area because city zoning requires it to be so. Such facilities, which nurture individuals back into the fabric of the community, are in fact banned from real residential communities. When the SRO residents leave their temporary home to find work in the city each morning, they find themselves in a dead industrial zone, with no sidewalks, no amenities. no neighborhood, no nothing. Welcome to the rest of your life.

City zoning should be stood on its head. These facilities should be actively discouraged from inhospitable areas like that section of North Davidson Street, the location and character of which add further impediments to each individual's journey back into society. SRO's should be strongly encouraged to locate in viable neighborhoods, where residents can walk to stores or places of employment, or catch public transportation easily to employment destinations. A true community would welcome their less fortunate brothers and sisters, especially if the members of that neighborhood had pretensions to the Christian faith.

Let's see if the city council can complete the task they started by approving this SRO in the face of neighborhood opposition, and move on to reform their archaic zoning provisions, which treat the struggling poor as if they were lepers, banishing them to the worst parts of town.

Everybody who opposed this SRO project, either publicly or privately, should read an important book this summer. Entitled Nickeled and Dimed in America, it documents the attempt by the author, Barbara Ehrenreich, to create a viable life working at jobs that pay minimum wage or just above. Abandoning her comfortable middle-class life for three months, she vowed to live strictly within what she earned working a mixture of full-time and part-time jobs, housing and feeding herself on the proceeds.

While acknowledging that this temporary shift down the economic ladder could not replicate the full difficulties of a low wage earner's struggle, and only provide a facsimile of that condition, the author kept strictly to her self-imposed economic rules, living in substandard housing, and eating only what she could afford. She waitressed in Florida, worked for a maid service in Maine, and was employed at Wal-Mart in Minneapolis. In addition to these full-time jobs, she also worked part-time at whatever other employment she could get -- such as an orderly on an Alzheimer's ward -- in order to earn a living wage.

Her message was stark and clear. It is not possible for a single wage earner to survive with any dignity at the lowest ends of the economic spectrum. It was not uncommon to find her fellow workers, working full-time, living in their cars or trucks!

In this context, SROs are a much-needed tool with which to tackle the difficult problem of affordable housing. The unforgiving private market in this prosperous nation often can't provide even minimally tolerable housing that's within reach of the lowest paid workers. In the booming economy of the Twin Cities, Ehrenreich couldn't find any decent accommodation she could afford, and was forced to live in a cockroach motel in a dangerous part of town.

The religious organizations behind the SRO project, and their architect, David Furman, are to be congratulated on putting their Christian beliefs into practice. They obviously remember Joseph and Mary's struggles to find room at the inn, and Jesus' injunction to his followers to do unto the poor as they would to him. To all who supported this worthy endeavor, salutations. To all who opposed it, start reading. *

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