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Gimme shelter: Homeless hope for day center

by Amy Kingsley

For a few hours every morning, this narrow Queen Anne on Arlington Street in Greensboro is just like home to the hundred-odd men and women who pass through its paneled doors.

The unassuming place, half-hidden behind old-growth trees, has places to put stuff, hot showers, mailboxes, a telephone, warmth and plenty of hot food.

“I come here for breakfast every day,” said Kenneth McFadden. “It’s the most important meal of the day.”

But by around 10 a.m. the welcome mat retracts, sending homeless men and women like McFadden back out onto the streets. McFadden passes his days panhandling.

“You don’t get much from people,” he said. “According to what I hear, everybody’s struggling.”

That’s certainly the condition of more than 100 people who lined up outside the Beloved Community Center for Friday dinner, many of whom are homeless. For some, the center is a lifeline, but for others, it’s just another stop on a circuit of churches and community centers that provide free food for those who would otherwise go without.

“I heard that they were going to make a day shelter at where we eat on Wednesdays,” McFadden said. “Where does everyone eat on Wednesdays? Grace – that’s it.”

As it turns out, the effort to locate a day center at Grace Community Church failed, but the initiative to bring a full-time day center to Greensboro is alive and well. On July 10, 30 public officials, city representatives and homeless advocates gathered around a table at Shiloh Baptist Church to discuss how to move the effort forward.

So far, the Transition Resource Day Center is nothing more than a name and a $200,000 line item in Greensboro’s newly minted budget. Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, who represents District 1, is leading the effort to turn that into a brick-and-mortar space where the McFaddens of Greensboro can come for shelter and services.

“We had to fight for the money for this project,” Bellamy-Small said. “And this is just seed money. Hopefully if we can turn it into something, we can compel the county and the city to keep the initiative alive.”

Recently the day center effort has suffered some setbacks. The first proposed site near Grace Community Church fell through, and agencies capable of running or managing the space have been in short supply.

“We’d very much like to see this project go forward,” said Cynthia Blue of the Greensboro Department of Housing and Community Development. “And we’re hoping it does in the near future. But it hasn’t gone as smoothly as we had hoped.”

But the project is moving forward. The city is currently negotiating the donation of another potential site for the day center and is actively involved in the planning meetings organized by Bellamy-Small.

Day center proponents envision a center where homeless citizens can go to use computers, take classes, get services, do laundry, take showers and relax. Members interested in taking GED classes, obtaining drug treatment or managing mental illness would be able to access those services through caseworkers at the day center, Bellamy-Small said.

“We want this to be a resource center, too,” she said, “not just a place for people to hang out.”

Turning those ideals into an actual center won’t happen on the cheap. The $200,000 reserved by the City of Greensboro is unlikely to cover the operating expenses for a fully functional day center like the one proposed by Bellamy-Small. The Bethesda Center in Winston-Salem has an annual operating budget of $500,000 that covers services and staff salaries, according to its website. The Greensboro day center would have to tap private sources and faith groups to augment public funding.

Cara Michele Forrest, a homeless advocate, proposed modeling the center on Milwaukee, Wis.-based Repairers of the Breach, a homeless-governed organization that provides many of the same services envisioned for Greensboro.

Whatever happens in Greensboro will likely be replicated in High Point, said Paul Gibson, a Guilford County Commissioner. The county’s involvement with the center will include providing support from departments like social services, public health and mental health.

Terry Speed, coordinator of the Hospitality House at Beloved Community Center, said she already provides some of those services to homeless neighbors who come in the mornings. She helps them fill out job applications and paperwork for public assistance if they are unable to do so themselves. There is still a need for a resource center where homeless service providers can converge, she said.

“I can see the need,” she said, “especially when you’re talking about a place where they can use computers to apply for jobs. I’m also especially interested in the GED classes and substance-abuse education.”

McFadden said he would use a day center. He suffers from high blood pressure that makes him prone to heat exhaustion. It’s one of the reasons he carries a camping chair with him on his trips across the city – so he can sit in the shade if no climate controlled shelter is available.

“A place like that would be sufficient for a lot of people to get on their feet and off the streets,” he said. “Some people just need a place to touch base and get cleaned up – to help them feel better about themselves.”

Red, who declined to give his full name, has been homeless since his release from prison three years ago and said he would use a day center, although he’s not optimistic about his job prospects as a convicted felon. Having a place besides the tent he shares with a friend to rest and get cleaned up would be nice, he said.

“A motel room usually costs about one hundred and thirty five dollars a week,” he said. “But I only make twenty-five to thirty dollars a day working on cars or picking up trash. If I even made that every day I wouldn’t be here.”

Tim Hutchinson, who is formerly homeless, has attended several of the day center meetings. Before he moved into his apartment, he slept on the streets, in the woods, under bridges, in parking garages and anywhere else he could lay his head without threat of harassment.

He’d sneak away from his sleeping spot before sunrise to prevent detection by the authorities or property owners. After he cleaned himself up – usually in a public bathroom – he would decamp to the public library and strategize how to get food and clean water.

“You’ve always got to find your resources,” he said. “When you’re really out there and truly homeless, you learn who the other ones are. You can tell who’s in that situation.”

Now that Hutchinson has an apartment, he no longer needs the services that would be provided by a day center, but he still knows plenty of people who do. Unless the officials and advocates can turn their ideas into something concrete, the window of opportunity for creating a day center could close.

The Greensboro City Council voted not to cut the budget of the housing and community development department by $200,000 in order to earmark that money for the center. The money came from the department’s unallocated fund – a pool of money set aside as a stopgap for federally reimbursed projects.

But the money was never officially allocated to the day center – only set aside for the project if it comes to fruition. If the day center project stalls, there is a good chance the money will vanish.

“The two hundred thousand is for this fiscal year,” Bellamy-Small said. “If nothing happens, it’ll be gone next year.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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