On freezing nights, society opens its doors for the homeless as wide as it can. It’s not always enough.
It happened last week, during the “polar vortex,” and may happen again this weekend, as freezing temperatures return. Triangle-area shelters declare “white flag” status on evenings below 32 degrees. Long waiting lists decrease with temporary cots. Rules are bent in some cases and dollars stretched to make a warm place for almost everyone who asks.
Not everyone will ask.
As hundreds assemble at shelters across the Wake County, countless more people will wait in the woods and under the highway bridges at the city’s edge.
They live largely outside the bounds of the traditional shelter system. Some won’t give up drinking or drugs, as most shelters require. Others suffer paranoia and anxiety, or don’t want to comply with shelters’ rules. Often, families don’t want to separate into men’s and women’s facilities, and transgender people may fear the shelter. A few simply choose to stay outside.
Collectively, they represent one of the most vexing challenges to the idea of ending homelessness.
They are the ones who won’t come in from the cold.
“You know how long I lived here without knowing what was in these woods?” asked Alice McGee, 71, as she stepped from a car in Raleigh’s south end. “I didn’t have a clue.”
Here, three miles south of the county’s men’s shelter, is another center for the homeless, where McGee, leader of Church in the Woods, does her work.
Joe Smith was the first client she saw on Tuesday. He had done little to hide his setup at the edge of an anonymous-looking business park. Workers at the business park can see him every day, a burly man in coveralls at the edge of the woods.
Smith greeted his visitors, McGee among them, in front of his home on Tuesday. He walked from the trees, and his stacks of buckets and shovels and beer, to say hello. He shook their hands. His cotton gloves were sopping wet.
It had poured for hours that morning, and Smith, 49, didn’t have a tarp. He had been outside the week before too, covered only with blankets when it was 9 degrees.
“It was pretty chilly,” he said in a wry mumble. “My shoes froze.”
‘Better on the outside’
McGee calls this the “mountain man” complex, and it’s common in the woods. Men such as Smith, she said, find it easier to suffer outside than to come inside.
“I just don’t like a lot of people around,” Smith said. He had been outside for almost four years, he said.
He sees ghostly, glitchy doubles of people and things. He believes doctors inserted machinery into him during a surgery, causing his vision problems. In the woods, he can get away from music and television.
“It’s a little better on the outside than the inside,” he said. He doesn’t want to come inside, he said – not to the shelters, anyway.
If it were to get too cold, he said, “I’d probably just stay up all night.”
The cold seems to draw out a primal charity from people. In fact, one frigid night may have reshaped Raleigh’s ideas about the homeless.
“Thirty years ago, two men froze to death on the streets of Raleigh,” said Peter Morris, executive director of Urban Ministries of Wake County.
Charities such as Raleigh Rescue Mission already were in operation, but there were far fewer community resources available at the time, Morris said.
“The South didn’t really think we had a problem with homelessness, until a tragic event, like death,” Morris said. The deaths brought the formation of the Urban Ministries coalition and its first shelter.
The Triangle’s ability to help the homeless has expanded tremendously in the decades since. Those two men in the 1980s, though, were far from the last to die in the cold.
Wendy Clark, a community police officer in Raleigh, estimates that a half dozen people died during cold snaps last year, though not all were killed directly by hypothermia. Cold weather can aggravate medical conditions in bodies weakened by poor nutrition and substance abuse, McGee said.
Everyone who works with homeless people seems to flash back to a different death.
For Hugh Hollowell, director of Love Wins Ministries, it’s a man who went by Cowboy who had a seizure and fell in the woods.
They found Cowboy three days later.
“It’s not academic for me,” said Hollowell, who runs a ministry for the homeless from a small house in western Raleigh. “It’s a guy who ate my food, laughed at my jokes, sat downstairs and flirted with my staff.”
Cowboy’s real name was Wiley Merry.
“And the reality,” Hollowell said, “is he died because he was outside.”
People who live without shelter only make up a portion of the Triangle’s homeless population. A national federal assessment in 2013 found that about 100 of the city’s 1,000 homeless people were living without shelter on a single January night.
The count, which some say is incomplete, found that Raleigh had the smallest proportion of unsheltered, chronically homeless people of any major American city, thanks in part to its network of charities and government agencies.
Even so, the people in the cold raise questions that sometimes divide advocates: Is it possible to help those who can’t or won’t help themselves in the face of danger? What is the end goal?
On one side is a somewhat authoritarian approach.
“You’ve got below-freezing circumstances, and you’ve got an individual who has prosthetic legs. You can make a case that he’s a danger to himself,” said Clark, the police officer.
“You can take this opportunity and you can probably get him declared incompetent.”
In other words, the state’s authorities can strip homeless people of their legal ability to guide their own lives in order to commit them to involuntary psychiatric care.
‘What do we do?’
Clark and Hollowell are hesitant to take this approach.
“People have to trust you,” Hollowell said. “I can’t say you can trust me, but I’m not going to let you be responsible.”
The alternative, then, is an idea that he calls “harm reduction."
“We accept the inevitability that people are going to be outside tonight,” Hollowell said. “And as a result of that, the question then becomes, what do we do about that?”
The answer seems unanimous among those who work directly with the unsheltered homeless.
Easing life outside
If Hollowell, McGee and Davis can’t bring their friends inside, then they’ll at least make it easier to live outside. It’s an idea meant to reach those excluded by shelter rules, curfews and capacity limits.
More than enabling an outdoor lifestyle, they hope to get to know the people outside. That long-term relationship might persuade a homeless person to come in for health care, or even to consider a more formal program, they said.
This idea is present among larger charities, too. Instead of opening its doors completely only on freezing nights, the Wake County men’s shelter now welcomes almost all comers every Wednesday night, its staff hoping to identify more people in need.
Wendy McGee made gentle small talk as she handed Joe Smith a pack of hand warmers.
She told him about a lunch she was throwing that Thursday, and she offered to have her group do his laundry. She’d bring him a tarp, she said, to keep him dry.
Smith seemed doubtful at first, but he entertained her ideas. His sense of politeness demanded that he at least listen to his guests, he said.
“I’m a Southern gentleman,” he said. “Born in Florida.”
He slowly let on a little about his life. His family’s deceased, he said. He last worked four years ago, at a stationery company up north. He would like to see the Dolphins win the Super Bowl. He doesn’t think much about his past, or his future. He minds his own business.
“I’m not very happy,” he said. “Not really.”
Eventually, Smith seemed to open to his guests’ suggestions. He would think about having his clothing dried and coming out for lunch, he said.
He hadn’t known he could go to the shelter on a cold night, no strings attached. If someone showed him where to go, he said, he just might come in.
Then McGee was gone, headed toward the ramshackle network of tents that stretched far into the woods, invisible in the trees.