Drescher: Reality of homelessness comes home to CEOs

jdrescher@newsobserver.comSeptember 7, 2012 

Even in the Triangle, one of the most affluent areas of our state, many people are living on the edge.

“Things can go from good and stable to bad in a real hurry,” said Ryan Fehrman of Genesis Home in Durham, which provides housing and support to homeless families. “Things are very, very bad on the ground.”

“On the ground” can have several meanings. Fehrman meant how people get by every day. His group is providing more nights of shelter to families with children than ever.

The demand for shelter far exceeds the supply. Which means some people in the Triangle sleep on the ground. Where things also are very, very bad.

$34,000 raised

The United Way of the Greater Triangle wanted to bring attention to the historically high levels of poverty and homelessness here. It sponsored a CEO Sleepout Thursday night at the grassy area across from the Durham Performing Arts Center.

About 30 people participated (not all of them CEOs), including Rick McNeel, president and CEO of LORD Corp.; Eric Becoats, Durham schools superintendent; and Farad Ali, a former Durham City Council member.

Participants raised money from family, friends and colleagues. Their gear for the night depended on how much money they raised.

They could get a 7-foot-by-3-foot piece of cardboard, a 4-foot-square cardboard box, and a sleeping bag. Or maybe just the piece of cardboard and a blanket. The group raised $34,000 for Triangle agencies that fight homelessness.

Some placed their cardboard on the nearby asphalt parking lot and slept there. Others set up on pine bark under a tree. Others, including me, used the lawn, near the railroad tracks, as home for the night.

Counting the number of homeless is difficult, but local groups conduct a census in the Triangle one night every year. The United Way believes about 2,000 people in Wake, Durham and Orange counties are homeless on any given night. That includes people living in shelters.

That also includes people living in the woods and under bridges. Via video, the group heard from a 45-year-old Army veteran who lost his job, car and house. He lived under an Interstate 40 bridge and foraged through the garbage of nearby restaurants.

He is thoughtful and soft spoken. “It’s amazing the things we said we’d never do,” he said. “And now I’m doing it. … It’s happening now to normal, everyday people.”

‘Fun for y’all’

We had many benefits that the outdoor homeless don’t have, including bottled water, portable toilets and a security guard.

“We were inconvenienced a trifle,” Kevin Trapani, president of The Redwoods Group, said at breakfast Friday. Maybe a stiff back, a bug bite or a loud train at 3:45 a.m. But our night out indeed was a trifle.

We were reminded of that eight hours earlier. About 11:30 p.m. Thursday, as participants mingled and prepared to hunker down, there was laughter and good conversation. After a bad storm, the weather had cleared. The fellowship was good.

A man appeared suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere. He was pushing a bicycle as he walked through the encampment. He stopped and asked what we were doing.

He appeared to be in his 20s. When told about the sleep out to raise awareness of homelessness, he turned away and started to walk again with his bike.

“This is fun for y’all,” he said sharply as he departed. “But it’s real for me.” Then he headed toward the railroad tracks and into the night.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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