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After 25 years in a “temporary” location downtown, the Inter-Faith Council broke ground Monday for a new, permanent men’s shelter, to be known as Inter-Faith Council @ SECU Community House.

The name of the shelter was announced as part of a groundbreaking ceremonyon the building site, adjacent to United Church of Chapel Hill on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. McKinley Wooten, board chair of the State Employees Credit Union Foundation, gave IFC Executive Director John Dorward an oversized check representing a $1 million grant from the foundation.

“I don’t often get million dollar checks,” Dorward told him.

“I don’t often get to write them,” Wooten returned.

Another check, this one for $100,000, was handed over by Karen McCall, chief communications and marketing officer for UNC Healthcare and School of Medicine. “Many times, like the IFC, UNC Healthcare is taking care of people that have nowhere else to go,” she said. UNC Healthcare sponsors the IFC’s Robert Nixon Free Clinic for the Homeless.

Like the speakers and special guests on the tent-covered platform, the 200-plus people in folding chairs set atop the straw-covered building site represented a broad cross section of the community – town officials, University faculty and staff, community leaders, homeless advocates, philanthropists and clergy.

Many of the morning’s speakers focused on the teamwork involved in the project. Doward reminded the audience that the land where they were sitting actually belongs to the University, which gave the Town of Chapel Hill a long-term lease on the property, which subsequently sublet the site to IFC for the shelter.

“When we think about what a university and a community can do together – how our students, how our staff, how our faculty, how our community can come together and do things greater than any one of us could ever do on our own – that’s what we’re celebrating this morning,” said Chancellor Carol L. Folt.

After closing remarks by state Sen. Valerie Foushee and U.S. Rep. David Price, IFC Board President Rebecca McCullough declared, “Let’s dig!” About 40 shiny shovels, plus hard hats and protective vests, were handed out to members of the platform party and others involved in the project to ceremonially break ground on the site. Volunteers also passed out key chains attached to miniature shovels with the IFC logo.

The $5.76 million community house is expected to be completed by spring of 2015. The two-story, 16,500 square-foot building will house 52 men and provide on-site medical, dental and mental health services as well as job coaching to help the homeless transition to independence. This men’s shelter will complement the services offered at the nearby HomeStart shelter for women and children on Homestead Road.

Narvell Williams is one of the men living in the current shelter. He told the audience his story of leaving the shelter a year and a half ago only to have to return after injuries to both knees led to the loss of his trucking job and his apartment. “When I called, they just said, ‘Come on back. We got you,’” he said. “This place is just awesome.”

By Susan Hudson, UNC News Services

Published April 5, 2014