During the polar vortex this winter, volunteer organizations, churches, and staff from the Red Cross sprung into action to find emergency services for the homeless population of Greensboro. Warming stations were set up for those who weren’t able to come inside. Other people in the city had homes but their utilities had been cut off, leaving them stranded in the icy indoors.

“I think our staff did a great job of identifying where these people were and getting the message out that we had warming stations,” said Mayor Nancy Vaughan. “It was really great to see the way that the community pitched in.”

The Interactive Resource Center (IRC) of Greensboro was one of the centers that remained open outside of normal operat ing hours to accommodate anyone left out in the cold.

IRC Executive Director Liz Seymour said, “This was obviously a really hard winter for a lot of people” While volunteers and compassionate citizens helped during the unexpected storm, the emergency illuminated just how much the City and service organizations depend on the time and money donated by others.

To address the needs of the homeless and the organizations that serve them, Greensboro has increased funding for the three housing organizations it supports directly: The IRC, Greensboro Housing and Partners Ending Homelessness.

The proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year has increased the spending on services for the homeless in Greensboro. The City has added $120,000 to Partners Ending Homelessness for 18 to 20 housing vouchers. Partners Ending Homelessness is an organization that prioritizes housing as a way to address other issues typically affecting homeless populations.

“They’ve really changed their philosophy on how to end chronic homelessness,” said Vaughan. “Research has shown that you should get someone housed and then address their issues because the housing actually leads to the stabilization.”

Partner’s Ending Homelessness is an umbrella organization that distributes funds to other small service providers in the city. By funding Partners Ending Homelessness, Greensboro entrusts the organization to make decisions about where the greatest needs are.

Partner’s Ending Homeless also uses a Point in Time Count to track data related to homeless populations in Guilford County. The results from the 2014 Point in Time Count indicated that a total of 897 people are likely to be experiencing homeless on any given night. This is down from last year, when the count was 949.

There has been a slight downward trend in the rate of homelessness over the last few years, but the Partners Ending Homelessness would like to continue to use data to bring specific risk and resilience factors into focus.

According to the Point in Time Count, the rate of chronic homelessness is going down, but Guilford County has seen an increase in the number of homeless veterans and domestic violence victims.

Tom Campbell, CEO of Family Service of the Piedmont, attributed this increase to the struggling economy. Campbell said, “Research shows that the longer people remain in economic distress, the more likely they are to experience domestic violence.”

The declining rate in homelessness seems to contradict the general belief that homelessness in Greensboro is on the rise. The belief could be partially due to the fact that the entrance to the new Downtown Greenway is adjacent to the largest homeless camp in the city, which is used by about 40 people. The camp has existed for a long time, but not its tents are more visible to people who have started using the Downtown Greenway.

Those staying at the camp have recently been informed that they need to vacate the premises. Vaughan has expressed concern for those who will be left outside during the summer. Vaughan said, “The middle of the summer can be just as bad for people as the winter can be.”

Another generally held belief is that Greensboro is inundated by homeless who come to the City from nearby smaller towns after hearing about some of the service centers.

Vaughan said, “I think we are getting people from other areas because of the programs that we offer and because of our generous spirit here in the city.”

Vaughan told a story about a couple she encountered from Liberty while helping out at the IRC during the winter storm. “The woman was obviously distressed,” said Vaughan. “Her face was literally misshapen from crying so hard. They said there was no place to go in Liberty.”

Seymour said, “We do see people from some of the rural counties, particularly Rockingham County where there just aren’t any services.”

The increase in funds for the IRC stipulates that the center will become the emergency shelter during future winter storms. The funds will go to making sure that the IRC has plenty of extra cots and other supplies in case of another polar vortex or similar disaster.

Seymour said that the IRC has been able to serve as many people as possible by cutting costs and through the aid of volunteers. The IRC is currently located in a building that was donated to them three years ago, and the center depends on interns, partnerships and volunteers. Seymour said, “We run a very frugal operation.”

“Our immediate needs are to continue moving towards financial stability,” said Seymour. “When we first started we were running with a two week reserve in the bank. We really were paycheck to check.”

Now the IRC has close to a five-month reserve fund to ensure that it could continue to provide services in case all other assistance stopped. It costs the IRC about $10 per person per day to provide everything from clinic assistance to laundry services to career services.

Homelessness affects a very broad range of people, from those who had everything together but recently experienced a string of bad luck to those who have been struggling with illness or addiction for many years. The IRC tries to serve as a connector between service providers and the large variety of people who walk through their front door.

The IRC is not a faith-based organization, but many religious institutions in Greensboro devote resources to the IRC and similar organizations. Without the support of churches, synagogues and mosques it is unlikely that Greensboro would be able to provide these types of services.

But Vaughan feels that she can depend on Greensboro’s religious groups to continue providing support.

Vaughan said, “If all of a sudden all of those churches pulled their plugs I’d have to wonder about those churches.”

Vaughan has been outspoken about her desire to focus on housing. Other members of City Council have echoed her cause, citing research that it is cheaper for the city to provide housing than it is to allow an individual to remain homeless.

For those who still don’t understand why Greensboro would increase spending on housing services during a time with the City has been forced to cut spending almost everywhere else, Vaughan says it’s not an issue where someone can be convinced. Vaughan said, “If you don’t have it in your heart what can I say that’s going to make a difference?” !