by Michael Steinberg
Perhaps a million people in the richest nation on the planet continue to wander for want of shelter, while empty houses proliferate within their sight but not their grasp. The Triangle may be continuing its economic expansion, but perhaps several thousand in Durham alone face homelessness every day.
This two-part series investigates homelessness in Durham. Part One (below) focuses on the plight of those having to rely on Durham's shelter system. Part Two, in the September issue, exposes those who profit by controlling empty and abandoned housing.
In the Shadow of the Jailhouse
On a blistering hot Saturday last May I met three people sitting in the shadow of the Community Shelter For Hope at 412 Liberty Street just east of downtown Durham. The shelter, also known as Community Shelter for the Homeless, is operated by the county, though its continuing future is in doubt, as some county commissioners want to reduce or cut off its funding.
Flyers posted ominously at the shelter's entrance had already given me a foul warning:
Outside, one of the three people in the shelter's shadow had nothing good to say about it. Alice Suggs said she'd been thrown out of it into a hard rain early one recent morning because a steak knife, one she said she kept for protection, had been found on her.
"They told me to go to the library," she said. "It's like a prison in the shelter. If you don't do what they want they treat you like dirt."
Suggs protested the strict regimentation inside the shelter. To her this reflects a public mentality that simply because one is homeless one is less than human or some kind of criminal.
Suggs, who has lived in Durham most of her adult life, said her last job, which paid $4.50 per hour, "fell through the cracks" and that her 3 week stay at the shelter had not enabled her to find another one.
"You can't get a job," she complained. "You gotta fix your hair and have nice clothes. You can't get to sleep in there until 1, then have to be up at 4 or 5 just to go to Labor World (a day workplace nearby at 715 North Mangum). And when you do go to sleep you still better watch your stuff."
Suggs said she ended up in the shelter after her unemployment ran out and she could no longer pay her $50 weekly rent. Suggs' companions, George Burnett from St. Paul in Robeson county, and James Parker from Virginia, had been staying at the shelter too, and agreed with her assessment of it.
"It's supposed to be helping people, but it's harming them more than helping," Parker said. "I've seen the same thing in different cities. The taxpayers whose money support this place should come here to witness the bad treatment of people."
Burnett observed that the county had just spent $50 million on the new megalithic jail downtown while it was cutting back on its relatively meager funding of the shelter. As he put it, "They destroy the social program while they build a jailhouse."
"The shelter creates people to live in the jail," Suggs added bitterly.
All three appeared clean and sober, and said they resented being lumped together in the shelter with substance abusers. They pointed out that people inside had different social problems but were all treated the same.
At the same time Suggs showed a keen understanding of the fundamental injustice of the "War on Drugs". "They pick on the little man 'cause he has to act crazy, lie, steal, to get his drugs. The big man gets them straight 'cause he's got the money."
Parker and Burnett said such outspoken observations by Suggs had put her at odds with the shelter's "Just Say No" line.
I asked them where people go when the shelter, which only holds 75, is full. "You sleep in abandoned cars or buildings or in doorways," Suggs answered. "If you're on the street the police stop you and check your ID to see who you are."
"They'll take you to jail in Raleigh" Parker reported. "They don't want homeless there."
All three said abandoned buildings should be fixed up for people to live in. Suggs' dream is to have a big house to care for disabled people. But right now she's far from that dream.
"I've been mistreated by every system I ever touched in Durham," she said.
How many are too many?
No one really knows how many homeless people there are in Durham. Estimates run from a few hundred to several thousand. How can one account for people who are officially defined by what they do not have, and unofficially by their skills at remaining invisible?
When asked to attempt an overall count, Betsy Rollins, director of the Community Soup Kitchen at 112 Queen Street, said, "I wouldn't even venture a guess. But over the years that population has increased."
The Soup Kitchen is just up Liberty Street from the Community Shelter. For 18 years Rollins and her staff, many of whom are volunteers, have been providing free meals to the city's hungry and homeless.
These days they're serving three meals a day, Monday through Friday. Rollins said she estimates that the soup kitchen provides 300 to 650 meals a day, totaling about 75,000 a year. All this is done on an annual budget of $95,000, with no public assistance.
The Community Soup Kitchen is a project of Durham's Urban Ministries. "We serve fewer people at the beginning of the month than the end," she said, "fewer in warm weather than cold."
Rollins explained the difficulty of counting up all the city's homeless. "The Community Shelter and the Rescue Mission are the two main shelters. Then you have Dove House, Phoenix House and Genesis House, which all shelter smaller numbers."
"But even if you added up all the people they take in, you have to understand that some won't go to a shelter. We know there are people living in cars. A family will stay with a relative. They could be considered homeless. Someone will call us from a motel. They have temporary shelter, but no food. Should they be called homeless? I'm at a loss as to a real definition of homelessness."
Rollins attributes the rise in homelessness to a number of factors. "The cost of living has gone up, but the minimum wage hasn't. The number of people on the streets went up after mental institutions closed. And we also have better methods of figuring out who these people are now."
Rollins said she has been seeing more women with children, and more Spanish-speaking people at the soup kitchen in recent years. "We serve anyone and everyone," she said, "with no questions asked. We have only one rule: there can be no threatening behavior."
Asked about the future of the Soup Kitchen, Rollins answered, "My greatest wish is to close the doors tomorrow because we're not needed. But that's not realistic. There'll always be a need to feed those who cannot provide for themselves."
About 10 blocks further down East Main Street, the Durham Rescue Mission provides the city's other main shelter for homeless people.
But while the Community Shelter will furnish emergency housing for a night, the Rescue Mission usually requires that people commit to a program of work, computer job training, and accepting "Christian counseling to help mend broken lives," according to the mission's brochure.
Ken Rogers, the Mission's development director, told me "There are 44 men in the program now. In the winter there were about 60." In addition Roger said there currently were three young women with children enrolled in an associated program that also teaches basic life skills such as shopping wisely and making up menus.
The Rescue Mission's brochure says another part of that program consists of "daily devotions" that "help teach principles from God's Word."
Rogers said the mission's programs are designed to run for about 6 months. "Gospel rescue is the focal point of our work," he told me, "centered on Bible-based counseling."
Residents pay $9 a day for room and board while at the mission, Rogers said. The mission was started in 1974 by Ernie Mills, who still heads it up. The mission now owns 19 buildings, mainly around the 1200 block of East Main.
Though recruits-to-be-true-believers make up the mission's ongoing programs, Rogers said that on the coldest winter nights the mission activates Operation Warm Shelter. "Then we bring in anyone in danger of freezing," he said. "Last winter we had 109 one night."
The Rescue Mission prides itself in being totally funded through private donations, most of which appear to be from the local Christian fundamentalist community.
Among testimonials in the mission's brochure is one from Jesse Helms that praises it for doing its work "without turning to the government for a handout."
There was some talk in the county government a few months back to turn to Community Shelter's operation over to the Rescue Mission. But this attempt at privatization has fallen apart - for now.
Imagine that your world revolves around the Community Shelter, Labor World, the Soup Kitchen, the Rescue Mission, and the mean streets of Durham. Imagine yourself outside and with little or no money last winter. Imagine seeing many empty buildings that all 'decent' people believe you have no right to live in. Imagine what you might think and do about it all.
Don't imagine that it can't happen to you. Today the average person, and many, many thousands in Durham, is only a paycheck or two from homelessness.
Michael Steinberg is an investigative journalist living in Durham. He recently lived in San Francisco and worked with homeless people there to take over abandoned buildings in the group Homes Not Jails. Part two of this series appears in the September Prism.
See follow-up to this story in the July 1996 Prism.
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