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A new face of homelessness

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Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series exploring homelessness in Durham. Today’s article focuses on how the economy is changing composition of Durham’s homeless population. Monday, The Chronicle will discuss the unique struggle of homeless families in Durham. Tuesday, The Chronicle will analyze how the city of Durham is trying to improve its system to combat homelessness more effectively.

Kenya Jacobs is a registered nurse, but the combination of failed relationships and a stalled economy has forced her and her two sons into homelessness.

Living in a one-bedroom apartment with sons Michael and Malik, a friend and her friend’s son, Jacobs moved to Durham after ending her marriage of 20 years. With very little money and no family to turn to, Jacobs and her youngest son relied on the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network—a nonprofit dedicated to helping the homeless—to find housing.

“A lot of people would look at me and say, ‘You are a nurse—how can you not have a place for you and your children?’” she said. “There were even some [churches] who didn’t understand.... But the people at IHN became my family, and that’s where my homeless journey began.”

Durham’s homeless population currently stands at 652 individuals—one of the largest homeless populations in the state, according to the most recent Point-in-Time survey. This is an increase from the 590 homeless individuals reported at the onset of the economic crisis in 2008.

As the pains of slow economic growth are felt across Durham, local organizations have noticed a shift in the socioeconomic makeup of the city’s homeless population, said Lanea Foster, a consultant for the city and coordinator for homeless services in Durham.

“The working class poor people are becoming the homeless people,” Foster said. “This is a different homeless population. These people have worked; they do have diplomas; they are not all substance abusers or mentally ill.”

Despite finding a job after six weeks at IHN, Jacobs said she still faces homelessness every day working at Lincoln Community Health Center. The center provides affordable care to those in the Durham community.

“I have worked with people who are homeless but are just not considered homeless because they can sleep on someone’s couch with all their kids,” she said. “If I can go to my job, and I can find two of my coworkers who are homeless, can you imagine the amount of people in Durham who are actually homeless with nowhere to go?”

Years on the brink

Devirtis Marsh, her husband Gilbert and their 1-year-old daughter Devasia became homeless for the third time after Gilbert lost his job this October. Chronically homeless since 2007, Gilbert and Devirtis are actively seeking employment but have had a difficult time finding legitimate work. Their homelessness made the couple more desperate to find work and vulnerable to employers who duped them into working temporary jobs without pay.

“People think homeless people are homeless because they want to be, they are lazy and they don’t care,” Devirtis said. “That doesn’t fit us. We have so many things we want to do. We just don’t have the money to do it. It’s not that we are lazy; we work real hard. We have just had a hard time with the economy the way it is.”

The Marshes are still living at the local emergency shelter Urban Ministries, Inc.—just one of a few shelters that the family has frequented.

Peter Donlon is the director of programs at Urban Ministries, which serves about 6,000 people annually. Donlon said he began to see an influx of professional couples and families in 2008.

“One family comes to mind who was working and had a child,” he said. “They had leads on jobs and were smart people, but they had lost their housing and had couch surfed for friends. They had their car but no place to go.”

The new influx of working class poor people turned homeless are making the city rethink its overall strategy to combat the issue effectively, Foster said.

“These people are not used to the system—they are used to working,” she said. “We are trying to teach people how to manage money better and live independently.”

The transition into homelessness is one that occurs after years of buildup and typically numerous attempts to escape the fate.

After breadwinners lose their jobs, many families experience a “lag effect,” said Mary McGuigan, director of development for Genesis Home, a transitional homeless shelter for families. Exhausting their financial resources while cutting their expenses, families spend years on the brink before ultimately ending up homeless, she said.

“You’ve depleted your savings; you’ve probably already run out your welcome with friends and family; and then finally you get to the shelter,” she said. “That is the face of homelessness that we are seeing. The jobs that sustained certain families, after downsizing, just don’t exist anymore.”

‘No one face of homelessness’

Many people think the homeless population in Durham just consists of the men with the sign out on U.S. 15-501, McGuigan said. Although they represent a part of the homeless population in Durham, McGuigan noted that they are not nearly the entire population, which is 20 percent homeless families and 13 percent children.

Working with homeless families in Durham every day, IHN Executive Director Catherine Pleil said her clients are far from the stereotypical image of the homeless.

“There is no one face of homelessness,” Pleil said. “Every homeless person is a unique individual with unique needs. They are special and deserving of our respect.”

Michael Currington, a former guest at Urban Ministries who is now head of security, said that many people do not realize the large number of families and working class individuals that Urban Ministries and other shelters serve. These misconceptions about the homeless population in Durham lead to a lack of funding, which makes it difficult to adequately serve the demonstrated need.

“It is easy to say that most people are homeless today because of drugs and alcohol, but with the way the economy is right now, that is simply not true,” Currington said. “We have a waiting list of over 50 families who we have to turn away every day because we have no place for them to go.”

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