Durham’s changed a lot in 25 years. It’s become a hip place to live, with specialized restaurants and music venues, food truck rodeos and artisanal bakeries. The cost of living has risen accordingly. Ryan Fehrman recalls a duplex for sale, neighboring a day care and a homeless shelter, that listed for $399,000.
“Market forces are making it harder to preserve affordable housing in our community,” he says from his windowless basement office at Genesis Home – the homeless shelter in question. “It’s making it harder to get people out of the shelter.” Fehrman is Genesis Home’s executive director, and getting these families – and they are all families here – out of the shelter is his mission. They deserve their own homes, he says with conviction.
“Housing really should be seen as a basic right,” he says. And Genesis Home, which turned 25 in February, operates under that assumption. In the 1980s and ’90s, Fehrman says, shelters tended to require people to meet certain standards before they moved into their own home.
“The reality is, that can be very paternalistic,” Fehrman says. “You’re trying to get someone else to a threshold that meets your expectations.”
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Many times, homeless people were required to find a job before leaving the shelter. Genesis Home puts up no such barriers. Plenty of people lose their jobs and find new ones, Fehrman offers, without having to go to the homeless shelter: Why require someone to find a job from a homeless shelter when they could find one from their own apartment?
“It’s more empowering to the family and the household, instead of trying to earn something that’s sort of arbitrary,” he says. “Your homelessness shouldn’t define you – that’s a temporary situation that we’re trying to rectify.”
After the recent recession, though, Durham homeless numbers spiked, rising from around 530 in 2008 to the high 700s, where they remain today, Fehrman says. It was around then that celebrated indie music label Merge Records, which also turned 25 this year, began donating to Genesis Home.
“After the financial crisis in 2008, it was really apparent that our giving had to focus on organizations that were good at helping homeless families stay off the streets and get back on their feet,” says label co-founder Laura Ballance. “They seem really smart in their approach to enabling people to help themselves.”
Among for-profit businesses, though, Merge is rare in its altruism: only about 5 percent of Genesis Home’s money comes from corporate sponsors, Fehrman says.
As the sour economy increased demand for its services, Genesis Home expanded, launching initiatives designed to keep at-risk families from becoming homeless. There’s Turning Point, which helps with rent and case management for families where the head of household has a disabling condition, and Circles of Support, where small groups work with families leaving the shelter for the critical first year to make sure they don’t relapse.
“Public dollars are declining and there’s more competition, so we have to figure out low-cost interventions that can have a positive impact on the community,” Fehrman says.
Genesis Home can use donations: Homeless shelters don’t get breaks on their utilities, he says, and he has a staff to pay. But beyond money, volunteers can work with Circles of Support or come in as tutors or study buddies for homeless kids. Or people can shop for a family for the holidays: Their disarmingly simple wish lists, Fehrman says, often include socks and underwear.
The families in Genesis Home and those served by its programs have needs during the rest of the year, too, and Fehrman needs people willing to give, holiday season or not.
“We have to be like squirrels this time of year – November and December have to get us through June,” he says of the Christmas and Thanksgiving spike in altruism. “This shouldn’t happen only on the holiday. Jesus wasn’t a groundhog that came out once and just disappeared and came back 12 months later.”