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Durham groups aid homeless

Durham local Bernard Brandon is on the verge of homelessness and needs the city of Durham’s help to avoid living on the streets.

Brandon was one of more than 455 homeless or underprivileged members of the Durham community seeking critical services at the fifth Annual Project Homeless Connect Thursday. Setting up booths inside the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, various organizations offered free medical screenings, dental exams and haircuts as well as job, social services and permanent housing counseling.

“If I don’t get help, I am going to be homeless,” Brandon said. “I have agencies paying for my rent right now, churches and places like that, but that is going to run out soon. I want to find permanent housing today while I wait on my disability [check]. Durham has done an excellent job with me, and I hope they can help me out today too.”

There are between 500 to 600 men, women and children homeless in Durham and Durham County, Mayor Bill Bell said. The U.S. Census Bureau found that 40,000 of Durham’s County’s 300,000 households are paying more than 30 percent of their paycheck on housing and are at risk of homelessness, Bell noted.

The main purpose of the event was to raise awareness about homelessness in Durham and to prevent it in the future.

“The plan is to significantly reduce overall levels of homelessness and long-term chronic homelessness through effective engagement of Durham’s public, private and nonprofit sectors,” Bell said. “This Project Homeless Connect event is prepared to serve 500 or more people during this time of high economic uncertainty.”

More than 500 volunteers from about 40 organizations such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Durham Department of Social Services, the Duke Divinity School and the Duke School of Nursing, came together to work individually with participants in the event to provide necessary services.

Brittany Schaefer, a first-year student at the Nursing School, said she volunteered in order to try to reduce homelessness in Durham given the volatility of the current economy.

“Homelessness, especially with the economic downturn, is kind of an epidemic and is increasing,” Schaefer said. “It is important to help people out and reduce it anyway that we can. If the person I am paired with finds shelter that would be excellent, and if I could help them get any other goal they require that would be great.”

The key to this event’s success is the personal connections made between volunteers and the individuals being helped, said Lanea Foster, who coordinated the event. The union of people from different economic backgrounds is what really can make a difference in the end, Foster said.

“Over and over again, having a volunteer and having someone who is focused in need or in crisis is the best thing for the guest,” she said. “It is all about that person fighting for them.”

Despite optimism, Mayor Pro Tempore Cora Cole-McFadden, who is also a city council member and member of the steering committee to end homelessness, said there is still work to be done to fully serve Durham’s underprivileged community. Citing problems such as discharging residents from mental health institutions without proper aftercare and leaving children who grow too old for the foster system on the streets, Cole-McFadden said Durham needs to be more accountable to its homeless residents.

“We don’t want people to stay in temporary housing,” she said. “We want them to move to their own house and apartment, so we need to pump resources into the city if we are going to turn it around.”

Paula Maxie has lived in temporary housing in Durham for 15 months. Overall, services in Durham have done a good job of providing her with the resources she needs, Maxie said, noting she attended Project Homeless Connect with the intention of finding a permanent housing option.

“They are plenty of opportunities here, and I am need of housing and employment,” she said. “Durham has been doing a good job, but I am looking to get a job in housekeeping and find a place to live.”

At least six people were set up with permanent housing by the end of the event—making the day a success, Foster said. Although Foster said she wants to see that number grow, she said she was pleased with the results and sees them as a step forward toward avoiding homelessness in Durham in the future.

“This is the only way that people are going to make a difference towards economic recovery,” Foster said. “It really shows how people really want to try, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

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