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The case for a homeless day center

by Jordan Green

You can’t really know what it’s like to be homeless unless, of course, you’ve walked in those shoes.

The closest I can come is recalling some occasions in my twenties when I found myself killing time in unfamiliar cities without money. In New York and San Francisco, when my checking account dipped below the minimum $20 withdrawal threshold I would abruptly recognize that a seat at a café was no longer mine, restaurant bathrooms became out of bounds and sidewalks were allowable only so long as you kept moving.

In some situations, being homeless is tantamount to being an illegal human being. Ask anyone who’s been rousted by the cops for sleeping behind the hedges next to a government building. Ask anyone who’s been subjected to Greensboro’s anti-loitering ordinance and told by the police to move along from their spot on Tate or South Eugene streets.

This reportedly happened to a homeless friend who was sitting on the terrace in front of St. Mary’s House, the church of which I am a member. The fact is, St. Mary’s House is the one place where my friend should not have been bothered because, to my knowledge, it’s the only church or business in the College Hill/UNCG area that hasn’t filed a letter of intent with the police to authorize enforcement of no-trespassing laws.

That’s likely to change sometime in the indefinite future. My church, much as I wish it were not so, has determined that its mission as a campus ministry for UNCG is no longer compatible with providing hospitality to street people.

When St. Mary’s House pulls away the welcome mat, a significant human displacement will occur. The planters lining Tate Street are topped with blunt metal spikes; those are there to discourage people from sitting down. Having made the mistake of trying to hang out at Tate Street Coffee without spending any money, I’ve caught on that they’re trying to run a business, not a community center. And for what I’m sure are sound reasons, Greensboro Urban Ministry and the Salvation Army turn people out when it’s not night or mealtime.

By default, the downtown branch of the Greensboro Public Library has become the place of last and best resort for homeless people who, for whatever reason, cannot work. This city department deserves our gratitude for taking seriously its mandate to serve all Greensboro’s residents, and for doing so with enthusiasm and creativity.

We need a day center in Greensboro. Or several.

We need officially sanctioned day centers, not just as a measure of decency and ordinary hospitality, but as a means of providing for the safety of our most vulnerable citizens and establishing points of stability to ease the transition out of homelessness.

My friend, Tim Hutchinson, recently moved into an apartment in Glenwood. A month ago he was sleeping in a tent in the woods. When the temperature dropped below freezing I couldn’t quite imagine how he made it. He told me the trick was to get under the covers while it was still relatively warm and to avoid at all costs going to sleep wet. People sleep in Dumpsters, under bridges and in cars. It’s not only possible, but sometimes the only option.

The greater challenge would come in the morning, Tim told me.

“It’s hard sometimes staying warm and dry when you get up, and you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B,” he said. “And sometimes there is no Point B.”

One centrally located day center or several strategically stationed centers organized around specific themes would provide places to get out of nasty weather. They could offer referrals for substance abuse and diabetes treatment. They could be a point of contact for caseworkers such as the housing support team responsible for helping Tim get his own apartment. A number of donated services could be provided onsite at relatively little cost: foot care, mental health counseling, ophthalmology and health screening, to name a few. Obviously, there would be bathrooms, but also other amenities crucial to pursuing and maintaining employment: showers, laundry facilities, a mailing address, lockers, phones and bus fare.

We need to have all stakeholders involved from the outset in making this happen: elected officials, merchants, foundations, service providers and faith leaders. And we must make sure homeless people’s voices are loudest in the process and ask them what they need instead of imposing our own less informed notions.

Luckily, we have receptive elected officials in Greensboro and Guilford County. Greensboro Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small has publicly stated her support for the idea of a day center. She and Mayor Yvonne Johnson have encouraged homeless people to come to city council meetings to voice their needs.

Earlier this month, Bellamy-Small, fellow council members Goldie Wells and Zack Matheny, along with Guilford County Commissioner Paul Gibson, showed up at the library to hear directly from their homeless constituents. Matheny leaned in to write down a phone number for a vision-impaired man who expressed frustration at being unable to find work. Wells listened attentively and in tandem with Bellamy-Small facilitated a sometimes boisterous discussion. Gibson promised to come back a week later with the county manager and fellow commissioners so they could hear what he heard.

Let’s do it. We can help homeless citizens seeking the same quality of life as every other American move towards full inclusion. We can help retailers who survive on thin profit margins address a barrier to getting customers into their stores. We can reduce social costs borne by our emergency rooms and jails by providing services on the front end and by decriminalizing homelessness.

We can say that from many interests we converged around a common purpose and made it happen. We can say we did it in Greensboro.

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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