Bed space tight for Durham's homeless

jwise@newsobserver.comNovember 27, 2013 

  • Remember the homeless

    • For information on Urban Ministries of Durham, see bit.ly/Zs2Vx or call 919-682-0538.

    • For information on the Durham Rescue Mission, see bit.ly/4CTrba or call 919-688-9641.

    • The Durham Rescue Mission is hosting the city’s annual memorial service for those who have died homeless in Durham, 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21 in its Center For Hope, 1201 E. Main St.

— Monday mornings on Liberty Street, they line up for beds – Durham’s homeless.

Fifty, 75, 100 or more men, women and families who need a place to sleep that night and maybe the next, and the next and next – most have no idea how long.

Monday mornings at Urban Ministries of Durham, the homeless can reserve a bed for a week. Some will be gone before the week is out, leaving beds open for others. Some will be back next week. Some may find no vacancy.

This week, 12 men went away from Urban Ministries with no place to sleep that night. Last week, Urban Ministries Director Patrice Nelson said there were 10.

“Many of them, that was the first time they had ever come to our shelter,” she said.

No one knows exactly how many Durham residents have no home of their own. The last “point-in-time count,” in January found 759 people in shelters, transitional housing and on the streets. In 2012, there were 698. In 2008, there were 545.

Those turned away from Urban Ministries are told to check back Monday evening, just before the 8:30 p.m. curfew, in case someone with a reservation didn’t show up. On a cold night, that’s not likely.

Filling beds

A few blocks away from Urban Ministries, shelter space has been tight at the Durham Rescue Mission, too. On Nov. 12, 21 men spent the night on pallets on the mission’s floor. The next morning, the mission opened a renovated dormitory that added 19 beds for men.

“We didn’t think we’d ever have to do that,” Rescue Mission founder Ernie Mills said. “I didn’t want to do it, but we had to.”

Mills said he had thought the Rescue Mission would have all the space it needed after it opened its 88-bed Center for Hope last January, raising its total to 267 beds for men.

With the dormitory renovation, the total is 307. On its first night in use, the mission housed 304. Mills said he hopes he doesn’t have to lay pallets on the floor again.

“I hate to do that,” Mills said. “It’s not comfortable. It’s a whole lot better than sleeping under a bridge, though, or in an abandoned house.”

Besides its 307 men’s beds, the Rescue Mission has space for about 150 women or people in family groups at its Good Samaritan Inn off Avondale Drive. Urban Ministries has room for 170 people, maximum, including 81 beds and 17 mats on the floor for men. There are 38 beds in nine family rooms and 30 beds for single women.

When very cold weather comes, or if tropical storms or tornadoes threaten in the summer, both Urban Ministries and the Rescue Mission open their doors particularly wide.

‘Very difficult situation’

“We just basically stack people on floors as safely, as many as we can fit inside. I don’t think we’ve ever had to turn someone away in a ‘white flag’ (extreme weather) situation,” said Bryan Gilmer, Urban Ministries’ development director.

“That is an important exception to our normal procedure.”

Normal procedure at Urban Ministries is for those needing beds to register Monday morning for the following seven nights. On Thursday mornings, there is registration for shelter through the coming weekend as space is available.

At other times, the shelter will take people referred by the Durham County Department of Social Services, other social-service agencies or law enforcement – if there is room.

“If a bed has not opened through someone not returning (to use a reserved bed), we would be in the very difficult situation of having to decline that referral,” Gilmer said.

The Durham Rescue Mission is a Christian charity that Mills, an ordained Baptist minister, opened on East Main Street in 1974. It does not solicit or accept any government support.

The homeless shelter now part of Urban Ministries of Durham was founded, as the Community Center for HOPE, by a Presbyterian group in the mid-1980s. Its food pantry, clothing closet and cafeteria were started about the same time by several downtown congregations.

Now, though, UMD is a secular institution supported by city and county donations along with other government grants, local churches, businesses and private donations.

‘It breaks your heart’

Both UMD and the Rescue Mission have separate accommodations for single men, single women and family groups. Nelson said Urban Ministries’ women’s shelter often has space available, but the family rooms and men’s beds are running at capacity and have been for some time.

“For the past four years at least, it’s been steadily climbing,” Mills said. “It breaks your heart to see how many that are really hurting out there and seemingly have no other place to turn.”

That roughly corresponds with effects of the 2008 recession, and both Mills and Nelson have in the past said they have seen formerly middle-class individuals and families arriving for help after losing jobs and homes.

“There are so many people that are unemployed; and if they get a job it’s only a part-time job, and it’s minimum wage,” said Mills.

“It’s very difficult for a person to make ends meet under that type of conditions. That’s one of the reasons we’ve got such a big increase.”

It’s not just an increase in demand for beds, Nelson said.

“We’re also seeing a lot we have to turn away from the food and clothing closet,” she said. The food pantry serves 26 households a day, and “we’re routinely turning away five or six.”

Normally, the UMD cafeteria serves 600 to 650 meals a day, five days a week. Now, Nelson said, it’s up to 700 to 750 meals, and food is harder to come by. Stocks are down at the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, which distributes donated food to service agencies, and the latest shipment of food from the state Department of Agriculture was half what UMD had been allocated over the past two years.

At the same time, food-stamp allocations have been cut. Disabled people who were getting $100 worth of stamps a month are now getting just $16, said UMD volunteer Bo Glenn.

“Times are so tight. … The lines get longer and longer as it gets colder and colder,” Glenn said.

“What scares me,” Mills said last week, “(is) this is not even cold weather yet. We’ve had a few cool snaps, but not cold. I don’t know what’s going to happen this winter.

“I’m scared.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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