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Overflow shelter provides respite from the cold

by Amy Kingsley

We were waiting for Judy.

It was almost 6 a.m. on Friday, and all the men who spent the night at Winston-Salem’s overflow shelter had been steadily leaving the subterranean gym for the past hour and a half. Judy was the lone holdout, and watching her prepare for her day was an object lesson in readying for elemental combat.

She wrapped her torso in a cotton blanket. She had already dressed her legs in seven pairs of pants, and now she worked her upper body, nearly immobilized by bulk, into a hooded jacket. Finally she slid her feet into work boots lined with plastic shopping bags, gathered her things and ascended to the street.

We watched, fascinated and impatient. Once she left, we were dismissed.

Above ground, the temperature hovered just below freezing. Judy lit a cigarette and stood against a sky the color of bruises.

Ten hours earlier I met Tyrone Baldwin and the six other volunteers who would be staffing the overflow shelter at First Baptist Church. Four of them were members of First Assembly of God and two came from Wake Forest University.

Each of us carried sleeping bags, blankets and pillows that we left in a recreation room littered with folding chairs and couches pushed up against the walls.

Regina Woodberry – one of the church members – and I dropped into chairs behind an intake table. Her job was to collect loose belongings and store them in large mailing envelopes, give numbered tickets to the clients and take down names. I copied the names onto a second ledger and was instructed to read a disclaimer to any new clients.

There weren’t any. Tyrone knew almost all of the men who walked through the double doors, including Dave D., who stormed in last, after all 20 of the night’s beds were filled.

“My throat hurts and I haven’t eaten in two days,” Dave croaked.

“I saw you in the soup kitchen earlier today,” Tyrone said.

“That’s a lie!” Dave said. “You’re a liar!”

Tyrone hustled Dave out the door. He later returned with the police to claim three bags of belongings he’d left behind.

“Dave says he’s Judy’s savior,” Baldwin said. “He just came here from Indiana and he’s trying to get her to go back with him. She’ll do it, but she don’t know him from a can of paint.”

By the time Dave returned, Judy had retreated to the bathroom – where she would stay for the next two hours, her clothes spread across the tile floor.

During the day, Tyrone works at Samaritan Ministries, a shelter and soup kitchen on the other side of downtown. Those folks referred to the overflow shelter are the ones who can’t hack it in the shelter system, the people who can’t follow simple rules or maintain a semblance of sobriety.

During the warm months, they might camp outside. But when the weather drops, the city and service providers open an overflow shelter.

It almost didn’t happen this year. A combination of building code problems almost rendered this space – offered by First Baptist – unusable.

“We had to make improvements,” said Charles Wilson, the chair of the Forsyth County Council on Services for the Homeless. “We had to install new smoke detectors, add emergency lighting, exit signs and fire extinguishers.”

The council also agreed to some ground rules: Four volunteers must staff the shelter every night, two of them need to be awake at any given time and the number of occupants can’t exceed 20. First Baptist’s gym could comfortably hold twice that many.

“I was there on Tuesday and we turned away six,” Charles said.

On average, the shelter at First Baptist houses 17 to 18 homeless people. Wilson calculated the census during the wee hours of Tuesday night, during his designated fire watch.

The shelter opened in December and will close at the end of March. Until then, it operates every night the temperature is predicted to fall below 45 degrees.

Like Thursday night and all the previous nights that week, when winter roared back for its final February appearance. Outside, the weather was cold, but inside, the gym was as warm as a hearth rug.

The night’s residents – Judy and the men – had come over on a bus from Bethesda Center. Walk-ups are discouraged.

They stowed their belongings in large plastic bins, selected blankets and mats and claimed spots on the glowing hardwood. Men lay on the near half of the court, and Judy had the far end to herself.

About a third of the men went right to sleep, their shoes lined up alongside their mats, jackets pushed into pillows. The others talked softly, drew or read.

James sat down next to Tyrone. He’d just gotten off the phone with his wife – they just married two weeks ago – she’s staying at the Salvation Army shelter. Tyrone is working on James, suggesting to the young man that he might benefit from a recovery program.

Tyrone knows from whence he speaks. When he came out of high school in Winston-Salem, he had a 4-year basketball scholarship to NC A&T University.

“When I went to A&T,” he said. “I began to think it was all about me.”

He started selling drugs, and doing them. For more than two decades, Tyrone haunted the streets of Winston-Salem looking for his next fix.

“There’s something called a ‘moment of clarity,'” he said. “I finally looked in the mirror and said, ‘This is not me.'”

He bounced around the state, enrolling in and flunking out of a succession of treatment centers. More than a decade after he began seeking treatment, Tyrone discovered Project Cornerstone, a two-year recovery program at Samaritan Ministries. He was a member of its inaugural class.

Tyrone spoke like a true believer – in the native tongue of the 12 steps. Sometimes he sees his old friends from the streets.

“They tell me how good I’m doing,” he said. “I let them know, it ain’t Tyrone, cause I don’t have no power. What I did, I allowed someone else to run my life. That’s the hard part, especially when you’re a grown man.”

James is good people, he said, and so is his wife. But he said he’s seen a lot of marriages break up on the streets, where relationships sour under exposure to the elements.

Lights out at 10:30 p.m. By then, most of the men had already crawled under their blankets.

Joe Schmitz, another member of First Assembly, unpacked a camping stove and long-handled pot into which he shoveled coffee and water. The resulting coffee was strong and dark, with oily slicks swimming on top.

The two Wake Forest students took the first watch from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., and three of the First Assembly members took the second. Regina, the church member, and I elected to take the third from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.

There’s not a lot of action at the overflow shelter at 3 a.m. The first bodies begin stirring at 4:30 or so.

One of them is José, a tall, dapper man with a ring of white hair and wire-rim glasses. His parents fled fascist Spain when he was 1 year old and relocated in America, he said. In the eighties, he lived in Mexico, but an economic crisis forced him to sell his home and cross the border again.

“I did not plan to come back,” he said.

He left early, but by that time most of the men were up and moving into the bathroom. After an hour or so, Tyrone flushed Judy from the women’s bathroom. So she performed the last of her preparations for an audience of volunteers and stragglers.

“I’ve been knowin’ Judy for eight years,” said a man with a lined face. “She knows how to survive.”

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

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