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Full homeless shelters turn families away

Three children sit on the grass in front of the Genesis Home
Three children sit on the grass in front of the Genesis Home

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series exploring homelessness in Durham. Today’s article focuses on how resources available to homeless families in Durham do not meet the demonstrated need. Tuesday, The Chronicle will analyze how the city of Durham is trying to improve its system to combat homelessness more effectively.

Junior Ruede Holmes lived on East Campus her freshman year. But unlike her peers, Holmes lived in a homeless shelter that year as well.

In April of 2010, an abusive relationship between Holmes’ parents forced her mother and six siblings into homelessness. Going to class and sleeping in Basset residence hall during the week, Holmes spent the weekends living with her family about three miles away at Urban Ministries, a local homeless shelter that serves about 6,000 people annually.

“They had us in really small room, and that wasn’t their fault, it was all that was available,” Holmes said. “We were in a small, cramped space with my entire family. There is only so much that they can do with the space they have, but it was really hard.”

Individuals in families like the Holmeses make up 20 percent of the total homeless population in Durham, according to the 2011 North Carolina Point-in-Time Count. There are 46 family members seeking shelter from the city’s streets that local agencies currently cannot support, said Peter Donlon, director of programs at Urban Ministries Inc. Family members each have a variety of needs, but they want to remain together, making it more challenging for service providers to get them housed.

Holmes’ family is out of Urban Ministries now, but she said more personal space for her family could have made the experience less traumatizing for her and her siblings.

“Each family has to share an area, so that is kind of hard, and it has created a lot of tension,” she said. “That was the worst part about it, and it affected me and my brothers and sisters a lot. More resources for families would have helped a lot.”

‘Growing demand’

In Durham, there are three homeless shelters that can collectively support 36 homeless families—Urban Ministries, Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network and Genesis Home—said Mary McGuigan, director of development for Genesis Home. The executive directors of service providers for Durham’s homeless meet regularly to discuss how to more effectively combat homelessness and how to serve more families despite decreases in funding.

“We are trying to make sense of all of this and how to make it work with growing demand and shrinking resources,” Donlon of Urban Ministries said. “The need is much greater than what Durham has to offer.”

By the time a family room opens in one of the local agencies, the parents have often already lost their children to federal agencies or cannot reach them because they do not have minutes on their cell phones, he added.

When Kenya Jacobs and her sons Michael and Malik became homeless last year, they turned to the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network. Jacobs and her family had to wait a little more than a week before IHN had room for them, but to Jacobs, the wait felt more like a month. And once she started living at IHN, Jacobs watched many families get turned away.

“There were families that would come in that would bring four children that they would have to turn away because they didn’t have enough room,” she said. “I felt really bad because I thought to myself, ‘Where are they going to go to?’.... I personally do not know what I would of done if IHN turned us away for good. I don’t know where me and my children would be today.”

McGuigan of Genesis Home said every time a room opens, families vying for the space form a line out the door by 7:30 a.m. the next morning. Based on her experience, McGuigan said she thinks the approximate 44 homeless families the Point-in-Time survey accounts for in Durham does not reflect the true need in the community.

“It doesn’t count the people right now who are at risk and will be homeless tomorrow, and it doesn’t count the number of families who are living together,” she said “If you don’t know how you are going to sustain where you are staying right now, that is an issue.”

IHN Executive Director Catherine Pleil said the organization built another family room under its current office and wants to double its occupancy by next year to meet the demonstrated need.

Before these organizations can make more room for families, however, the system must first address the largest population of homeless people—single black males. Lanea Foster, a consultant for the city and the coordinator for homeless services in Durham, said black males are consistently about half of Durham’s total homeless population. These men are “clogging up the system” making it difficult to devote more resources to homeless families, she added.

“If we don’t address that problem, than the system will always be full, and no one will be able to get services,” Foster said.

Shrinking resources

As the federal government begins to decrease the amount of discretionary funding it gives to state programs, Pliel said IHN is expecting close to a $15,000 decrease in federal, state and local funds in the upcoming fiscal year. Similarly, Urban Ministries experienced a $22,847 decrease in federal, state and local funds in the last two fiscal years.

Reduced government support has forced IHN and other agencies to come up with new strategies to collect funds for services.

“A major part of discretionary spending is assistance to people in need and that is getting smaller,” Pliel said. “We need to find more donors because your budget is not going to be able to go down while you are trying to serve more people.”

McGuigan of Genesis Home said homeless shelters in Durham cannot count on government funding every year. Expecting another decrease in federal, state and local dollars next year, leaders at Genesis Home have started to build up other parts of their total annual income.

“We decided to shift that pyramid around so we are not relying as much on government resources,” she said. “We are building up other resources such as income from special events, congregations and civic groups by 5 to 15 percent each year.”

Given the decrease in funds, Foster said now—more than ever—it is essential that service providers are held accountable to use funds as effectively as possible to get people out of homelessness.

“People think that if we just give money that we are doing the right thing,” Foster said. “But throwing money at the problem is not the solution. We need to be a good steward of the money and the work and actually seeing people as people and making sure they are getting out of homelessness.”

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