In the winter of 1983-84, two homeless men froze to death in downtown Raleigh. The tragedy spurred members of Pullen Baptist Church and others to look for ways to make sure that something so cruel and unnecessary never happened again.
A little more than 30 years later, however, it has happened again. On Feb. 15, with temperatures below freezing, two men who had died at least partly as a result of “exposure to the elements” were found by police in East Raleigh.
The faith-based effort begun three decades ago resulted in the founding of Emmaus House, now actually three houses that were bought and renovated and now operate to give safe homes to homeless working men in active recovery from substance abuse. Three houses for 27 men (the total number helped over the years is in the hundreds) perhaps doesn’t seem like much – until you hear about someone who might have been one of those helped but who has instead died from homelessness.
During the last 30 years, dozens of city and county initiatives to end homelessness and its causes have made great strides. Most recently, the Raleigh-Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness was formed and meets regularly, generating many services. The South Wilmington Street Shelter keeps expanding, now able to provide overnight service in its downtown facility to at least 280 men. The two-year old Salvation Army Center of Hope has 92 beds for women and children, while the Wake County Cornerstone Day Center provides everything from showers and a laundry to counseling and medical referrals for the “chronically homeless,” a name for the hundreds in our midst on any one day who suffer from mental illness, chemical dependency and other disabilities
Everyone seems to be doing the best they can. And yet on a recent Sunday, the worst still happened. This time, one of those who died was a recent high school graduate, a bright, well-loved young man who was struggling, as are so many of the homeless, with problems that seem to make them unreachable.
He and others who cannot or will not come in from the cold are at one end of the homelessness spectrum. At the other end are working men and women whose paychecks don’t come close to covering any kind of housing in our increasingly expensive city. They, too, end up in shelters.
Behind them are those who have been looking for work, some of them for months or years. So far, the great “news” that North Carolina’s unemployment problems have been solved has not affected them.
Then there are those who have rehabilitated themselves but because they committed felonies in the past will not be considered by landlords for rentals.
Some of the homeless – barely employed, unemployed, unemployable – eat lunch on weekdays at The Shepherd’s Table, a facility in a downtown church whose volunteers often serve more than 300 in one hour.
On Feb. 16, over 250 came in from the cold for lunch. They went back out afterward to work or just to wait somewhere until the shelters opened for the night. Few knew yet that the day before, the bodies of two men, including a 19-year-old who had once listed his residence as the Wilmington Street Shelter, had been found.
Were their cases hopeless? Are we with the means to help helpless? Are the homeless easier to ignore because they are faceless, too? The deaths received scant news coverage but enough so that if you cared to look, you might have seen the face of someone resembling a young person you might know or care about. If you recognized him, what would you do now?
Lucinda MacKethan of Raleigh
is a former board member of Emmaus House who now coordinates the “Friends of Emmaus.”