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Winston shelters struggle to find emergency space

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by Amy Kingsley

They line up before 5 p.m. – men in second-hand ski jackets, knit caps and work boots. These are the residents of Samaritan Inn, a homeless shelter that overlooks a small urban park wedged between warehouses.

Richard Gibbs is one of them, and he arrived at Samaritan before sundown on Nov. 28. The Statesville native pocketed his fists in a polyfill jacket and hunched his shoulders against the chill.

“When it gets cold,” he said, “you just know it’s going to be cold. So….”

On the coldest days, he circles downtown Winston-Salem, trying to stay warm. He’s been homeless since his parole from prison two months ago. He spends his nights in shelters like this one.

He shook his head when asked what he would do if he couldn’t find shelter on nights when the mercury bottoms out.

“I don’t know,” Gibbs said.

Neither does Louis Campbell, another early bird hoping for a hot meal and a clean bed. Campbell spends his days at the Bethesda Center, a day center for the homeless, and recently signed a lease on an apartment. He moves in on Dec. 12; until then he’ll be staying at Samaritan.

“It’s the only place I can go,” he says.

Last winter, the Forsyth County Council on Services for the Homeless estimated that the city would need 40 more beds to accommodate the homeless during the coldest part of winter. They arrived at that number by tallying the homeless people who slept in emergency shelters at the Bethesda Center and Rescue Mission.

“Based on last winter,” said Charles Wilson, the chairman of the council, “we knew we were going to need an overflow shelter.”

First Baptist Church offered its gymnasium, and a group called Advocacy for the Poor bought 40 sleeping mats.

“Then all hell broke loose,” said the Rev. Ginny Britt, executive director of Advocacy for the Poor.

A city building inspector dispatched to the church told Britt and Wilson that a shelter – even a temporary one – that housed 40 people needed an automatic sprinkler system. That verdict, coupled with news that Bethesda Center would be closing its emergency shelter for construction, has sent homeless activists scrambling for alternatives.

“We have tried every option known to man,” Britt said.

Very few downtown churches have the sort of modern sprinkler system mandated by the state’s building code. And transporting the homeless to a newer church further from town adds another level of potential liability for nonprofit agencies.

Agencies like Advocacy for the Poor and the Council on Services for the Homeless have lobbied the city on behalf of their cause. At the Nov. 19 Winston-Salem City Council meeting, the council members tabled a proposal to suspend a 100-bed cap on homeless shelters.

At the beginning of the shelter crisis, some activists said the limit, imposed in February, would prohibit shelters from serving all of those in need. Most of the shelters downtown already accept fewer than 100 residents and don’t have the facilities to expand their services.

The shelter at Samaritan Ministries, known as Samaritan Inn, consists of 69 twin beds in neat rows and a wall of locked cubbyholes. Executive Director Sonjia Kurosky nudges one of the beds into line an hour before check in.

Every afternoon, Samaritan dishes out free lunch to all comers. They serve an average of 328 lunches a day.

In the evening they operate a shelter for men. It opens at 7 p.m., with dinner at 7:15. After the evening meal, the men congregate in the hospitality room and an adjoining smoking area, where they stay until bedtime. Spiritually inclined guests can also attend an optional evening devotion.

Downstairs in the hospitality room, not far from the big-screen television and the waiting room chairs, sits a stack of overflow mats. Volunteers put down as many as 16 extra mats; not just on cold nights, but on any night that demands it.

“We’re always balancing this,” Kurosky said. “How do we run a safe, clean and caring shelter while at the same time making sure that no one’s left out in the cold.”

Kurosky and her staff pride themselves on the cleanliness of their outfit.

“This is like the condo of homeless shelters,” she said.

Samaritan takes almost all comers, provided they’re men and sober enough to differentiate between the stairwell and the bathroom. In addition to the shelter, Samaritan runs an inpatient recovery program for substance abusers called Project Cornerstone.

The clients of Project Cornerstone have their own small dorm tucked in a downstairs corner. Cornerstone participants spend their days inside the shelter, attending classes and working.

“Most of the staff comes from the substance abuse field,” Kurosky said. “One of the many problems that homeless people have is substance abuse. You know, everybody’s timing is different. Our timing, the guests’ timing, God’s timing. We just try to be really good to people until their time comes around.”

People who work with the homeless hear plenty of stories.

“Some of them will make you laugh, and others will make you cry,” Kurosky said.

Here’s a sad one: Two years ago, a homeless man – an advanced degree holder suffering from mental illness – died of exposure on the streets of Winston-Salem.

“It was right across the street from the Bethesda Center,” she said. “So he chose not to come in.”

Local leaders and homeless advocates are racing to prevent another tragedy this year. Dan Dockery, the assistant inspections director for the city of Winston-Salem, said he’s trying to work out a compromise with the NC Department of Insurance, the agency that regulates building codes. A delegation from Winston-Salem will be traveling to the December Building Code Council meeting to lobby for some leniency in enforcement.

“[First Baptist Church] is a prominent structure right in the middle of downtown,” Dockery said. “What happened is that they started talking about how they could help. They agreed about what they could do and started making it happen. Unfortunately, the pastor was unaware that the code would not allow him to do that.”

The code, which was amended last August to strengthen sprinkler requirements, is meant to protect people, he said.

“I understand the reason for it being there,” Dockery said. “The life-safety issue is very important.”

The federal government gives building guidelines to the states, which amend them for their own purposes. Local inspectors like Dockery are charged with enforcement.

“Unfortunately the code does not take into account these sorts of charitable uses,” said Kristin Milam, a spokeswoman for the NC Department of Insurance. “There are no exceptions, especially when it is a life-safety issue.”

Advocates like Britt, executive director of Advocacy for the Poor, argue that providing adequate shelter to homeless citizens is also a life-safety issue. After all, the odds that a homeless person will die from exposure to sub-freezing temperatures are greater than the odds of dying in a church gymnasium fire, she said.

“If somebody freezes to death in Winston-Salem,” Britt said about the insurance department. “It is going to be on their hands.”

Among the options under discussion are dividing the 40 overflow beds into eight groups of five, stationing off-duty firemen at the overflow shelter and inserting an exemption to the sprinkler clause if a structure meets a threshold for exits. The homeless service providers, politicians and building code council are all working toward a solution, Dockery said.

“The people at the board, we talk to all of them,” Dockery said. “The mayor, the council members, the people combating homelessness and the private foundations, we’re talking to all of them. Everybody is talking about it, and that’s how we get things done.”

During the last two weeks, the temperatures at night have dipped below freezing, Wilson said. But so far, no homeless people have been denied shelter.

Wilson, the chairman of the Forsyth County Council on Services for the Homeless, predicts a spike in demand during December and January.

Willis Miller, the assistant director of Samaritan Ministries, sits on the Overflow Shelter Committee.

“When the inclement weather strikes, we are going to need another committee,” he said. “The funny thing about the weather around here is that one day it might be eighty degrees and the next it’ll be freezing. You need that safety net.”

Winston-Salem is the only city in the state that’s having its efforts to open emergency shelter hampered by the building code. But it’s not the only one worried about the coming season. In neighboring Greensboro, at least one homeless advocate is also predicting a shortage of emergency beds.

“We’re scared to death about it,” said the Rev. Mike Aiken, executive director of Greensboro Urban Ministries.

Aiken’s shelter and the Salvation Army usually wait to pull out overflow mats until the winter.

“This year we have been at and over capacity all during the summer months,” he said.

The grim economic outlook has compounded Aiken and Kurosky’s winter anxieties. Some analysts have predicted another rise in home foreclosures, meaning more families out on the streets.

The real issue is not overflow beds, Kurosky said. Winston-Salem does not have enough permanent shelter beds to house the city’s homeless.

On a Monday in September, Samaritan Ministries’ soup kitchen turned out a record number of midday meals, 413. That means almost 10 shifts of diners rotated through the shelter’s bright, 48-seat dining room. It was quite a feat for the kitchen’s volunteers, Kurosky said, but also a glimpse of things to come.

“I’ve been saying for quite some time that hunger is on the rise in Winston-Salem,” she said. “The day we do something about it is the day we have to start turning people away.”

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

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