Homeless find day shelter where they can

by Amy Kingsley

Every Monday Food Not Bombs, an organization of volunteers who prepare meals for the homeless from donated ingredients, sets up a serving line in front of the central branch of the Greensboro Public Library.

Two years ago, when the downtown meals began, the site emerged as a natural choice. The library, as it turns out, is one of the places the city’s homeless residents go when overnight shelters close. The Urban Ministry’s Weaver House operates between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. Salvation Army emergency housing is available 24 hours, but some homeless people balk at the group’s religious orientation.

So, homeless people seeking shelter from the weather, or just a place to sit, read or use a computer, flock to the squat two-story structure on North Church Street or one of the library’s neighborhood branches. Unfortunately they often come lugging all their belongings, which they can’t leave at shelters, and a few arrive with behavioral problems library staff are not equipped to handle.

Although the library has tolerated the homeless presence and welcomed Food Not Bombs, a recent confrontation between private security and a homeless patron and changes in policy have highlighted the need for specialized daytime services for the city’s homeless.

‘“In my ideal universe we would all join forces and get the city to create an alternative to the library,’” said Liz Seymour in a Feb. 15 meeting with library administrators. ‘“Maybe we need a day shelter.’”

Seymour, who is active in Food Not Bombs, is negotiating with library administrators to provide some services to the homeless people who frequent the facility. But both sides acknowledge tensions between staff, regular customers and the mission of the facility that constrain the amount of services that can ever be made available through the library.

An alternative can be found in some other cities that have facilities that provide services for homeless people who would otherwise be adrift after the early morning closure of most overnight shelters. Horizon House in Indianapolis was founded in the 1980s after business leaders complained about loitering among the city’s homeless population. It has evolved from a drop-in center into a facility that provides a range of services from storage space and a telephone number for job applications to more intensive case management and medical care.

‘“We like to think of this as a progressive model,’” said Horizon House director Carter Wolf. ‘“This facility is built upon the strengths of our customers. Everyone here has to take responsibility for his or her problems. This isn’t charity; we can’t fix things for them.’”

Wolf said the facility serves about 200 people a day at maximum capacity, although more demand for its services exists in the community. He groused that caseworkers are overworked, but said that many customers have nonetheless been able to use Horizon House resources to end their homelessness.

In Tulsa, Okla. another day shelter offers many of the same services, which include bus tokens for job interviews, legal aid and assistance with obtaining documents. The Tulsa Day Center has operated for 18 years.

Beloved Community Center in Greensboro does offer some facilities for homeless citizens through their Hospitality House. Breakfast is served daily from 7 to 8:30 a.m. and showers are available until 11 a.m. Some of the homeless still bide their time from Hospitality House’s closure until the evening night shelters open.

Hospitality House set out to be more of a comprehensive day center, but lack of staff and space prevented them from offering more services, said Cara Michelle Forrest of the Guilford County Homeless Prevention Coalition. Right now, the county has prioritized feeding and housing people, and daytime services have faded from the radar screen. Meeting those immediate needs has soaked up much of the available funds, Forrest said.

Indianapolis’s Horizon House funds its programs through a combination of federal and state grants, Wolf said. Fifty percent of their income comes through Housing and Urban Development, but the amount of money available through that department shrinks every year. The rest comes from contributions.

‘“Much of the money right now is specifically tied to housing,’” Forrest said. ‘“I am less aware of funding for this specific kind of thing, but it is something we really need to push for.’”

She said that the community is already bearing much of the cost of homelessness in other ways. Injured or sick homeless people without shelter might aggravate their condition, ending up in hospital emergency rooms without insurance.

Many homeless citizens who utilize emergency shelters or opt to sleep on the streets also battle mental illness and addiction. Local mental health outreach providers like the idea of having a central place to touch base with homeless clients.

‘“We have a lot of folks we work with,’” said Kristin Norden, the coordinator of the hospital diversion program at the Guilford Center, ‘“And sometimes we can’t find them. Then the next time we see them is when they’re in a crisis situation.’”

Norden’s program aims to keep patients who are in and out of mental hospital on a regular outpatient treatment program. At Horizon House, mental health and medical practitioners staff small offices.

Seymour, library director Sandy Neerman and assistant director Steven Sumerford discussed how to encourage outreach efforts in the library. Their conversation briefly veered back to the misunderstanding that spurred this discussion.

On Feb. 6 during Food Not Bombs’ free dinner at the library, one of the homeless volunteers felt threatened and sought a security guard. When the guard came out he ordered the group to leave the premises, which they did not do. Later discussions with Sumerford and Neerman resolved the issue of whether dinner could be served, but the administrators chose to go further in exploring ways to aid homeless customers.

The library also recently changed its policy to require library card numbers for computer use, which caused problems for the homeless customers dependent on the computers yet unable to get a card because they don’t have permanent addresses. Sumerford said that he would educate their homeless patrons about getting computer access without a library card.

‘“In a way, you guys are kind of parked with the responsibility of serving homeless people during the day,’” Seymour said.

While Neerman and Sumerford discuss how to best meet that need, homeless patrons will continue to use their facilities. In addition they will gather near the corner of Eugene and Lee Streets, close to the Health Serve clinic and Urban Ministries. Fewer of them will go to Tate Street, which has tightened enforcement of loitering statutes, Forrest said. They will not have a permanent place to strategize and find services.

Funding a day center is just one obstacle facing homeless advocates searching for alternatives to traditional shelters. Neighbors often oppose the construction of such facilities. The key is to avoid rezoning battles. Even successful petitions often create too many enemies, Wolf said.

Advocates like Forrest and Seymour are interested in raising awareness of programs like the ones in Tulsa and Indianapolis. But until a plan is set, agencies like the public library will try to find ways to fill the gap or end up pushing homeless people back out onto the street.

‘“My prayer is that we would have [a day center] sooner rather than later,’” Forrest said. ‘“We really need it.’”

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