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HOMELESS to HOME FILLED

by Deonna Kelli Sayed

Photos by Jeff Sykes

GreeNest makes the magic happen for new housing clients

Harvey Pitts met a North Carolina girl in Jersey. He had spent eight years in the army during the 1980s and was ready to settle down. In love and feeling hopeful, Harvey wanted to see what North Carolina was like. So, he moved south.

A lot of affection existed between Harvey and his southern sweetheart. They married, but sometimes they had problems, which led to other problems. She kicked him out. Or he left.

However it unfolded, Harvey “was out of housing for a minute,” a minute being almost three years.

He did what he could to survive. Sometimes he stayed with friends. Most often, he lived on the streets. Harvey couldn’t work, not with rods in this legs and age showing up like it does when one enters their 50s.

Harvey moved around the Triad and stayed in High Point for a while. “But won’t nobody help you there,” he recalls.

Finally, he found his way to Winston Salem where he met with a caseworker at the Salvation Army. “There are a lot of resources here in Winston that will help people,” he says.

The City of Winston Salem established a Commission on Ending Homelessness in March 2015 and supports rapid rehousing efforts. That commitment is bolstered by an organized faith-based volunteer network that manages several shelters, serves as volunteer caseworkers, and helps those experiencing homelessness find work and furnish apartments.

Harvey had lost his Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) veterans housing voucher. A Forsyth caseworker helped him get back into the network. He eventually moved into his own apartment, one furnished by GreeNest, a volunteer effort that provides furniture and other domestic necessities to the homeless when they are placed in housing.

His wife moved back in with him.

“Things are good now,” Harvey shares.

It takes more than policy recommendations, caseworkers, and a job or a disability check to manage the challenge of homelessness. It takes a dose of compassion and a community. The key is having volunteers doing what local and state government can’t.

Harvey’s story speaks to the successful collaboration between local government, non-profits, and volunteers. This coalition works because there is a community of people providing resources beyond where “the system” ends.

There are people in the Triad demonstrating how this kind of magic happens.

Those experiencing homelessness come with different stories. Some are veterans, like Harvey. Others have held jobs and are skilled, but the recent recession and the widening wealth gap in America has altered the culture of economic insecurity.

Having a job doesn’t guarantee one can afford a roof.

Meanwhile, lawmakers across the country are slimming already barren social service budgets. Public mental health is inadequately funded. The economic realities of the past decade have made it easier to fall into homelessness than at any time in the nation’s history.

Per HUD requirements, Point-In-Time surveys are conducted at shelters and through a “street count” to obtain demographic data on an area’s homelessness.

The 2015 survey occurred on January 28. Data collected documented close to 600 homeless in the Forsyth County shelter system, with 22 listed as unsheltered. Out of that tally, 124 had serious mental health issues, and 60 identified as victims of domestic violence.

HUD estimates each homeless can cost taxpayers up to $40,000 a year in terms of hospitals visits, police intervention, and emergency shelter stays. From an economic perspective, it is fiscally responsible to find permanent housing for those in need.

Yet, the journey from the street to permanent housing is a matrix.

That is what I’m told by volunteers gathered around the conference table at GreeNest in Winston Salem, the non-profit, volunteer organization that furnished Harvey’s apartment.

When guests enter GreeNest, they see a sign that says, “All are welcomed!” By this point, guests have survived an arduous paperwork process. They’ve gone to the required classes or sought the right treatment for addictions or mental health issues to be eligible for permanent housing.

Jan Barbee points out that any one of us may be a single event from losing everything.

“We are all one relationship away from homelessness,” she says, citing that the wrong friend or partner can destroy a life. Homelessness can be the result of a single misfortune: a medical emergency or an untreated addiction.

Sisters Joanna Britt and Jan Barbee launched GreeNest in 2014.
Photo by Deonna Kelli Sayed

Jan established GreeNest with her sister, Joanna Britt, in 2014 after learning more about The Green Chair Project, a similar initiative in Raleigh. The idea for GreeNest started on Jan’s deck during a humid August afternoon. She and Joanna were reflecting on their mother’s home in South Carolina, a house that held a lifetime of objects.

“What are we going to do with all of her stuff?” one said to another.

Meanwhile, Joanna’s college-aged son had put a request on Facebook for a mattress. He found one within half-an-hour, demonstrating the power of social media.

Jan was on the verge of retiring after 25 years as a public school teacher. She loved teaching, but the condition of N.C. public education had started to wear on her. She sought a new challenge.

By early September, she and Joanna were filing for non-profit status and settled on the name GreeNest because it conjured concepts of recycling and reuse. The “nest” referenced the idea of a comfortable home. By March of 2015, they had leased a site on Northwest Boulevard in Winston. A month later, they received 501c3 status and took their first client as the overflow shelter, a resource available during the coldest months of the year, closed for the season.

GreeNest was ready for donations such as kitchenware, linens, wall art, couches, bed frames, and kitchen tables (they do not accept mattresses). Their goodwill was matched as soon as they opened the warehouse. A painter gave time and materials. An electrician provided lights and labor. A series of volunteers spruced up the showroom to look like something at Furniture Market.

Jan and Joanna had never attempted anything like this before. It wasn’t even a thought before that August afternoon.

Donations started rolling in. All they had to do was put an announcement on Facebook.

Joanna points out that the concept of GreeNest “is such a no-brainer. It makes sense. People have so much stuff that they want to put into hands of people who want it, and there are people who need it.” As of July 2016, GreeNest has helped 128 families.

The two sisters had a readymade network of volunteers lined up to support the GreeNest idea. They attend Augsburg Lutheran Church in Winston Salem, a congregation that manages a homeless overflow shelter during the winter months. The church is part of a larger network of area congregations offering shelter and other services through City With Dwellings. The organization recognizes the key to eradicating homelessness isn’t just a home. It requires a community of individuals to offer accountability, as well as support, to those experiencing homelessness.

GreeNest works with partnering organizations to find those eligible for housing.

Once an apartment is located, guests come to GreeNest to pick out furnishings, from couches to kitchen packets with basic pots, pans, and utensils. The result is that a one-bedroom apartment is fitted for as little as $200.

The funding for those receiving services comes from partnering organizations. However, GreeNest is a volunteer, nonprofit effort. Warehouse rent comes from fundraisers or direct donations.

The furniture isn’t a handout, either, and that is the mission of GreeNest. Clients are provided paper money similar to the kind found in a Monopoly game. The money represents “points” they have to spend. Each point is roughly equivalent to a dollar. Participants budget their way through the showroom, turning in their point money as they purchase items. They must stay within their allotted budget, although they can use their own money and return to purchase additional items.

The buy-in fee means individuals leave the warehouse with items that belong to them – things they have chosen for themselves.

In many cases, clients do not expect the dignity involved in the GreeNest experience. “We had a veteran that came in, and, he got here a little bit early,” Jan explains. “He stopped at the doorway and looked out in the showroom, and said, ‘Where are we going to shop?’ I said, ‘Right here.’ He said, ‘But this is the good stuff.”‘

In 2000, a few years before the housing market crashed, the National Alliance to End Homelessness outlined a plan providing recommendations to address the challenge of homelessness. Endorsed by the Bush Administration and HUD, the plan gained momentum in cities across the United States.

Most urban counties in North Carolina are participants in this Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness. Every county has different resources to utilize and challenges to address. Communities apply for HUD funding and coordinate efforts with local hospitals, non-profits, and social service organizations to find permanent housing for those who are chronically homeless.

The journey to permanent housing, however, is dredged in bureaucracy and a maze of paperwork. Caseworkers manage small miracles in a system that includes many gaps. The caseload is heavy, and limited fiscal and human resources can’t cover all nodes of the matrix.

Unlike many caseworkers, volunteers are often closer to the street and able to document shifts in local homeless populations. Volunteers also bring people into “the matrix” so they can become eligible for services.

Many volunteers are from faith-based organizations, like the people sitting around the GreeNest table. Lea Tolberry works with City with Dwellings and the Augsburg Overflow Homeless Shelter. Susan Doran is a conduit between GreeNest and other service providers.

Christien Armour is the other side of the matrix. She is a Rapid Rehousing case manager with Goodwill Industries of Northwest N.C. Christien explains what must happen in Forsyth County for someone to become eligible for housing and other services.

First, one has to fit the parameters of “chronically homeless” to be eligible for HUD housing vouchers. To meet the requirements, one has to have a disabling condition while continuously homeless for a year or more, or experience four episodes of homelessness within the past three years. Couch surfing doesn’t count. One has to have slept in places not meant for human habitation, or lived in an emergency homeless shelter.

A person has to prove their homelessness. Documentation must be gathered; that can be done via paper trail through the shelter system. Sometimes, police officers have to be tracked down to verify that someone was seen on the streets. Obtaining all the needed documentation is impossible without caseworkers or volunteers to help navigate the system.

The next step of obtaining a government issued I.D. is another challenge.

Many experiencing homelessness have lost all of their belongings. Volunteer case managers often have to track down and request birth certificates, and this may be daunting if someone is from out-of-state.

There are other challenges: a birth certificate can’t be mailed if one doesn’t have a permanent address. Replacement social security cards have to be requested.

At some point, transportation needs to be arranged to the DMV and to various appointments required to get the paperwork in order.

There are other barriers. Many who have lived on the street have extensive misdemeanor records. Some landlords don’t want to rent to someone with a rap sheet. Charges stack up for things like trespassing or loitering, a side effect of homelessness. Paying the fines is a challenge, so a cycle emerges between unpaid fines and jail time.

Christien points out that being arrested is sometimes a better option than being on the street. The way some rationalize it is this: “I am going to get myself arrested so I can have three hot meals and a cot, or I am going to get arrested because I have some things going on and no one is taking the time to really understand.”

She says that caseworkers and volunteers serve as important advocates.

Part of this process involves educating police. Susan Doran of GreeNest acknowledges that the Winston Salem police are great in getting people into the shelters. They recognize faces and learn names. Still, many police forces have inadequate resources and uneven emphasis on Crisis Intervention Training (CIT), a program to train and help law enforcement recognize and respond appropriately in situations where mental health issues are present.

Landlords sometimes stall the process.

A HUD housing voucher requires that properties pass an inspection. Some landlords are cooperative in bringing properties up to code. Some aren’t, and take an excessively long time to complete repairs, which delays families from moving out of shelters into homes.

The system is a cycle that can perpetuate the very thing it claims it wants to solve.

It is the volunteers, those with the freedom to maneuver slightly outside the system, who bridge the gaps.

Lea Tolberry from City With Dwellings observed that this past winter shelter season produced more single dads with families, a challenging demographic to temporarily house as there aren’t many shelters that accommodate men with children.

There was an increase in those with untreated mental health issues, perhaps a fall-out from the state’s transition of mental health services to a large, managed care organization (MCO) system that critics say penalizes the poorest and those most in need.

There seemed to be an uptick in women fleeing domestic violence situations.

The elderly also started showing up.

The population of elderly homeless is growing at the national level, but they remain a forgotten demographic. As baby boomers age, some are losing spouses and are then unable to maintain finances or homes.

Many experiencing homelessness receive disability checks and can pay a subsidized monthly rent. Yet, the monthly average of a disability check is about $700, an amount that keeps recipients well below the federal poverty line of $11,700 a year for a family of one.

A check isn’t enough for a security deposit on a new place or to turn on utilities and water. Sometimes, all one needs is a small amount of initial help.

Thomas Doran (no relation to Susan) got out of prison in 2012 after a 15-year sentence.

He had served in Vietnam, and was enlisted from 1973 to 1979.

Before his incarceration, he had moved to Winston Salem from Kansas City, where he owned a family-run bookstore.

Life was solid in North Carolina. Thomas found a job he enjoyed doing dry wall and ceilings. He loved the area and the people. But bad decisions came back to haunt him, and he spent what he calls a third of his life behind bars.

Existing after release “was very frustrating.”

In a phone conversation, he tells me how many people can’t comprehend the reality that “after 15 years in prison, you’ve got nothing.” Even little tasks seemed impossibly foreign. He didn’t understand things like hands-free faucets and toilets. Smart phones baffled him completely. The entire world had changed while he was on the inside.

He returned to Kansas City where he had family and friends, but life outside of prison was too disorienting and he fell into substance abuse. At one point, he weighed only 123 pounds and couldn’t stand looking in the mirror.

“I didn’t like myself at all,” he tells me. The Kansas City environment was toxic.

One day, his daughter looked at him and said, “Dad, I love you, but you’ve got to get the fuck out of this place or else it will kill you.”

Thomas made the decision to return to Winston Salem. He had fond memories of his life in North Carolina. Plus, he knew that “people here will hold me accountable. It was time for a change. I come out here and it has been a blessing every since.”

Thomas entered into the matrix and met with a caseworker that started the process of the HUD VASH voucher, a program designed specifically for veterans in need of housing who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. Thomas had to attend the required classes. He had to show that he had his life in order. And he did.

A year ago, he became eligible for housing, a process that took 90 days. He bought his furniture from GreeNest. He threw in an extra $45 of his own money for a table and chairs because he used to enjoy entertaining in his pre-prison life.

Thomas likes his apartment but worries what will happen next year when the bus route changes. Public transportation won’t be as convenient as before.

Things get better, but are never easy.

What helps is having a community of volunteers who make sure participants pay their rent, that they keep going to the doctor for treatment, that they keep getting to the places they need to be.

Volunteers say they’re most surprised by an item many men request when they come into GreeNest.

They want an iron. One of the biggest challenges of those experiencing homelessness is personal upkeep, the lack of which is a blow to individual dignity. Susan Doran said one man at the shelter lamented job hunting. She recalls him sharing that he wanted to work, but he “couldn’t land a job because he smelled so bad.”

Volunteers pooled resources to purchase memberships in the downtown YMCA so people had a place to shower. The memberships also provided a dry, warm daytime place to go during inclement weather.

“This is just one example of how we get creative,” Susan suggests. She throws in that one way to help someone is to provide a bus pass for travel to necessary appointments.

“Two passes,” she offers, “because they have to be able to get somewhere and get back.”

Volunteers are magic makers, and some of that magic happens at GreeNest.

Jan was at the Augsburg overflow shelter one night talking to a guest. A man was homeless after a series of misfortunes depleted his resources.

He couldn’t stand not having anything to do during the day. He was accustomed to working. With no job prospects, all he had to do was walk around town. He shared his job qualifications with Jan.

A series of coincidental events led to Jan to hear about a job opportunity that required his exact skill set. She started making phone calls throughout the shelter system, and eventually tracked down a man whose name she didn’t know.

He got that job, and the position eventually became full time and permanent.

“Without those chance meetings with people,” Joanna comments, “this man could have easily fallen through the cracks.”

This is another way volunteers compensate for the holes of the matrix.

Thomas Doran moved into permanent housing on his birthday last July. He entered an empty apartment and milled around until two friends came by to take him out for his special day.

The movers arrived with his furniture while he was out. They brought in the bed and couch he had picked out at GreeNest, as well as the kitchen table with four chairs.

They put everything in its place.

Thomas walked in the front door to find a fully furnished apartment smiling back at him.

Later, his caseworker dropped by with a confetti birthday cake. “I called my grandmother in Kansas City to tell her the good news. Confetti cake is my favorite. She used to make it for me.”

At 62 years old, he had a new life waiting on him. It was made possible by social services coupled with a community willing to make a difference.

Thomas sat at his new kitchen table, the one with four chairs he’d bought himself. He ate a piece of his birthday cake, and then he cried. !

DEONNA KELLI SAYED is a Greensboro writer and podcaster. Visit dksayed.com to learn more, and follow her on Twitter @Deonnakelli.

WANNA go?

GreeNest is located at 1015 Northwest Boulevard in Winston Salem. A fundraiser, “Cleaning Out the Nest,” will take place July 23rd from 8 am to noon and will have furniture, accessories, and artwork available for public purchase. Visit greenestws. com to learn more about donations and volunteer opportunities.

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