Wake County

Wheeler: Making friends of the homeless

Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.

Under a morning sky, these words from Isaiah 58 wash over a group of Cross Point Community Church workers as they hold hands during a departure prayer. Nearly 20 people have gathered at a Knightdale meeting spot bearing breakfast food and work gloves. A homeless camp in South Raleigh is the caravan's destination.

The plan is to feed the folks at the camp and to clean up the trash so that the property owner will be less likely to evict those who have built crude but elaborate living quarters amid a patch of trees off Tryon Road.

Bill Morris, founder of Community Outdoors Ministries, has forged relationships with many in Raleigh's homeless community and will guide the group.

"It's not for the government to fix this problem; it's for the churches to do," he says, explaining his nonprofit's motivation as I nod in agreement. "Too many people wear Christianity as a coat and don't live as if it's something inside of them."

On this day, what Morris hopes these Christians will do is make a friend of someone who has no home.

"It's easy to drop food or clothing and leave," he says to the group before the prayer. "These guys need someone to depend on."

Pulling up to a curb across from a business, it is surprising to see the campsite surrounded on all sides by development. The workers head off on a winding, overgrown trail and emerge, after traipsing over a manmade bridge, under an arch of intricately arranged sticks, some of which secure tarps.

Nelson, a homeless man from El Salvador, rises quickly from a picnic table to welcome his visitors. Other homeless people come and go here, but Nelson is the camp's constant resident. Under a tarp, his tent rests on a 4-inch slab of Styrofoam that has soaked up recent rain.

A huge, water-sodden mattress, bags and bags of discarded and soaked clothing, stained sofa cushions, shredded tarps, broken buckets, cooking utensils, pile upon pile of trash and, oddly, all manner of rusting, busted toys await the helping hands. Have children lived here?

"This is hard work" echoes several times through the mostly leafless trees as it becomes clear that no one really has thought past the picking-up part. The loaded trash bags are heavy, the mud is thick, and the trailers that will head to the dump later are parked on the road, at least 144 steps away.

Two boxes of heavy-duty trash bags are soon gone, and the church's youth pastor heads out to dump one load and to pick up more bags.

Fear of disclosure

In the interim, Melissa, a homeless woman who has come to visit Nelson from her own encampment, rocks in a recliner and talks of her love of animals, even snakes, with Missy Reilly, a Knightdale mother of a 2-year-old. On cold nights, Melissa's cats help keep her warm.

When Reilly asks Melissa - a South Carolina native who has been in Raleigh 35 years - where her camp is, Melissa runs fingers through gray-streaked, strawberry-blonde hair and won't say. Her fear of a homeless man who has burned all of her belongings in the past keeps her mute.

Soon after, Nelson, who has been helping with the cleaning, decides it's time to tackle the mattress. Matt Sanderson, a senior at East Wake Academy in Zebulon, heads over to help wrestle it over the bridge, up the path and out to the road.

"I love doing stuff where you can see happiness on people's faces," Matt said when asked earlier why he gave up a 65-degree winter day to help the homeless, "then having them go and pay it forward to other people, not pay you, but to help someone else later."

After two and a half hours of workers' bending, bagging and hauling, the remaining trash sits unreachable inside barriers of briers. Nelson, Melissa and Buddy, a formerly homeless man whom Morris helped into an apartment five months ago, join the group on the road for a departing prayer.

Before hands are joined, I see Reilly exchange phone numbers with Melissa.

She made a friend.

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