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Homeless veterans in Winston-Salem find opportunities for housing

by Jordan Green

BY JORDAN GREEN jordan@yesweekly.com

Teri Hairston, a program assistant for United Way of Forsyth County, made a triumphant entrance into a conference room at Bethesda Center for the Homeless waving a survey.

“We got a homeless veteran,” she said to about 25 people eating pizza and doughnuts before a night scouring the streets to get a count of the unsheltered homeless people in Winston-Salem, “and we’re going to get him housed because we have nine slots available.”

Ava Neal, a 52-year-old guest at the shelter and volunteer, couldn’t believe what she was hearing. With tears in her eyes, she exclaimed, “I’m a veteran!” Neal had worked for a temporary staffing company for seven years as a sorter-inspector at Penn Engineering. The company had a hiring freeze for the entire time she worked there, and in January the assignment ended and she found herself out of work.

“Unfortunately, everything’s going to China,” Neal said. “You know it’s slow when they’re shipping the machinery out.”

Her landlord worked with her, but after three months with no employment prospect in sight, Neal voluntarily left her apartment because she didn’t want to fall further into debt. She tried staying with family members, but that didn’t work out, so she ended up at the shelter.

“I’ve never been addicted to drugs or alcohol,” Neal said. “I’m just unemployed.”

Neal has never lived on the street unlike some of her peers who are chronically homeless because of addiction, mental illness or a combination of the two, and prefer to avoid the rules that govern life in the shelter. But the 90-day limit on her shelter stay would run out in about a month, and she faced uncertainty.

She felt depressed, and decided that the best thing she could do to lift her spirits was try to help someone else. Now, suddenly an outreach worker from Bethesda Center was telling her she would be housed within two weeks.

Federal homeless policy has expanded  from assisting the chronically homeless to ending homeless among veterans and among families with children, said Darryl Kosciak, executive director of Partners Ending Homelessness in neighboring Guilford County. The United Way of Forsyth County received a Supportive Services for Veteran Familes Grant from the US Department of Veteran Affairs last year. Geared towards improving housing stability among very lowincome veterans families, the grant pays for healthcare services, childcare, transportation and, in some cases, rent and utility payments if they help the beneficiaries stay in or acquire permanent housing.

Led by the United Way of Forsyth County, about 10 teams comprised of professional human services workers, college students and churches, scoured rail lines, vacant warehouses and shopping strips from 9 p.m. to midnight on July 25 looking for anyone who might be overdressed or underdressed, lugging around extra bags or displaying any other visual cues for homelessness. Once they confirmed that they were homeless, volunteers asked them to complete a survey that includes name, date of birth, race, veteran status, where the person planned to sleep that night, how long they had been homeless and why they were homeless.

The array of organizations repre sented among the volunteers gives a sense of the variety of reasons people become homeless: The YWCA’s Holly House serves homeless women; Fellowship Homes work with men trying to overcome substance abuse; the Forsyth County Department of Social Services is interested in homeless youth who have aged out of foster care; Ivy House assists ex-felons who are struggling with reentry into society; 4 Harry, Veterans Helping Veterans Heal and the US Department of Veterans Affairs work with homeless veterans.

The point-in-time counts help determine the allocation of funding each county will receive from the US Department of Housing & Urban Development, but the coalition of service agencies is also keen to offer shelter for the night to homeless people who are out in the street and to connect they with services to put them on the path to long-term stability. As an incentive to complete the survey and as a token of goodwill, the outreach teams gave the men and women they found in the street a “goody bag” with a ball cap, clean socks, hygiene items, snacks and bottled water.

“We consider this a search-and-rescue mission more so than complying with HUD,” Hairston said, “because we’re finding people who are sleeping out in the street and inviting them to come in.”

By midnight, the volunteers would count 80 unsheltered homeless people. Hairston emphasized that the number was preliminary and she planned to review the surveys to eliminate duplicates before finalizing the count on Tuesday. The last count, in January, was 56 unsheltered homeless people.

“This is a marked increase,” said James Asbury, an outreach worker with the Bethesda Center, while acknowledging that the number tends to be lower during the cold-weather months because people are more likely to seek shelter. Hairston also noted that many of the volunteers have years of experience and the teams are getting better at capturing an accurate count of the unsheltered homeless.

The classic barriers of substance abuse, mental illness and felony history continue to contribute to homelessness, but, as with Neal, the slack employment market also factors in the equation.

Myatina Hemmingway, a guest at the Bethesda Center shelter, completed a recovery program for substance abuse two and a half years ago. After getting clean she started her own housecleaning business. Most of her jobs were cleaning apartments for the Housing Authority after residents had moved out.

“Being that it’s the Housing Authority, [the residents] want to better themselves, so they’ll move out if they can,” Hemmingway said. “The economy is so bad that there’s not as many jobs, and people are staying put until the economy improves. I stopped getting work, and eventually I had to move out of my apartment.”

The volunteers also cheered the fact that a dozen people had accepted their offer to transport them to the Bethesda Center to shelter for the night.

Serving in a support capacity and as a “runner” for teams that located people wanting transportation back to the shelter, Asbury got in his wife’s Ford Explorer with Kida Lundquist, an 18-year-old volunteer, and headed northward on Patterson Avenue. They would make two runs to the corner of Trade and 4th streets and one to East Winston to pick up “rescues.” Lundquist handed each one a tiny paper crane. She got into the habit of folding the birds when she set a goal — so far unrealized — to make a thousand after the devastating tsunami hit Japan last year.

With 14 years of experience in homeless outreach, Asbury has developed a refined sense of who the night people are and what they’re up to.

Passing a huddle of young men near the intersection of Patterson Avenue and 30th Street, Galway said, “If you see people and I’m not stopping, there’s a reason why. Especially the corner boys — they’re slinging.”

Asbury located a middle-aged man sitting on a low wall in an empty parking lot on South Broad Street just south of Business 40. The man cautiously approached the driver’s side window and Asbury greeted him. He agreed to take the survey but asked that his name not be used for this story.

He said he planned to stay with a friend that night, but often sleeps under a bridge. He hasn’t stayed in a shelter in more than 12 years. He confirmed that he was a veteran.

“I don’t like shelters,” he said in a tone of helpful candor.

Asked for the primary reason that he was homeless, the man said, “I’ve been disabled. I had a nervous breakdown.” Lundquist ticked through other possible contributing factors, and the man confirmed that he was unemployed and had been in prison in 2010.

“Substance use?” Lundquist asked. “I drink beer and smoke weed,” the man said.

“Mental illness?” “I hear voices and stuff.” Asbury instructed Lundquist to check off “dual diagnosis,” indicating that the person has histories of both mental illness and substance abuse.

“Can you make it down to the Bethesda Center?” Asbury asked. “Because we’ve got some housing, and we might be able to hook you up.” The man indicated he would, Lundquist gave him a paper crane, and they parted amiably.

Heading back up Broad Street, Asbury spotted a woman walking along the sidewalk and slowed down so that she could catch up. Wearing glasses, cropped hair and blue-jeans, the woman peered quizzically into the vehicle and brightened when she recognized Asbury. He asked her how she was doing. She responded that she had recently returned from Maryland and was housed now.

Later, after bidding the woman a good night, Asbury told Lundquist: “She’s HIV-positive, crack-addicted, all  of that. She checks herself into a hospital from time to time when she gets too overwhelmed. She’s not doing great obviously, but I’ve seen her worse.

“She’s working,” he added. “Otherwise, she wouldn’t be out walking at this time of night.”

Back at the Bethesda Center, Ava Neal was beaming.

She has taken a job readiness class with Goodwill to learn about creating a resume and handling herself in an interview — skills she hadn’t needed in seven years on the job. She has e-mailed out a flurry of applications and made follow-up calls. She has some donated professional clothes ready for an interview if one ever materializes.

With the assurance of supported housing, Neal can start thinking about saving money to take pharmacy classes at Forsyth Tech, and start a new career. There was just the smallest sliver of hope, and she wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass.

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