NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A coalition of faith-based groups have come together with a common purpose: to serve the unsheltered population and provide some respite from street living.
A new day shelter is underway with a soft opening planned next month. The shelter will open its doors at 425 S. Fourth St. on recurring Thursdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a goal to add more days as funding and operational needs become available.
READ MORE: Nonprofits protest homeless ordinance as it moves to second reading
A group of community partners from four agencies — Hope Recovery United Methodist Church, The Anchor United Methodist Church, Living Hope Street Ministry and The Feast Gathering — have met for at least six months now. Two grants awarded in December by the New Hanover Community Endowment, totaling almost $60,000, helped make the shelter reality.
The Rev. Meg McBride, the Rev. Jamie Thompson, Christine and Tony Perez, and the Rev. Randy Evans had multiple discussions and a vision to offer a warm, safe place for homeless individuals to rest, eat a hot meal, take a shower and socialize.
The day shelter at Holy Ghost Tabernacle of Prayer for all People — home to Thompson’s church — will open March 9 and welcome anyone needing services.
The Anchor UMC received a $32,000 grant from the endowment for capital improvements and Hope Recovery was awarded $27,800 for operating expenses. With another $10,000 pledge from the United Methodist Church, the group is starting out with roughly $70,000 to launch the shelter.
“If we can just show that this is a vital service in this particular area, maybe the city and county will get on board [financially],” McBride said. “We’re literally putting a little something together. We don’t know how long it’s gonna last or how long we can fund it.”
The group recently submitted for a grant from the city, which released a request for proposals for emergency shelter services in December.
READ MORE: City offering $388K to organizations for homelessness services and shelter
“It’s been a very organic thing that’s bubbled up,” Thompson said. “But I think it’s even in the wider community because Meg hosted a meeting last week, and there’s just this collaborative spirit that’s building. It’s just something in the air.”
On Sunday, Jan. 29, McBride said 40 people showed up at her church on Winston Boulevard. The goal was to hear feedback from anyone in the county engaging with those experiencing homelessness.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “Different people, church folk, some agencies that work downtown that support homeless individuals; commissioner Deb Hays was there; the new social work team. We just talked and talked.”
The team McBride is referring to is the city and county’s joint Getting Home initiative pairing social workers with Wilmington Police Department officers for street outreach. The efforts have been underway for a little under two months.
McBride said the crew coming together to launch the day shelter has met with county Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko and the Getting Home team. She said she has encouraged them to set up at the day shelter as well for case management.
Coming together for a cause
The faith-based partners have all served marginalized populations and worked with unsheltered neighbors in Wilmington for years.
The Perezes launched their street ministry three years ago and have been “serving faithfully every single day since,” Christine said. The couple’s vision was the spark that initiated a day-shelter plan.
“It’s been on our heart and a dream of ours,” she said.
Her husband, Tony, will be running the shelter at the onset.
“Our goal is to eventually open up more days like Tuesday, possibly Monday and Friday,” Christine added.
Currently on Wednesdays, the Perezes’ Living Hope Street Ministry serves lunch for low-income and unsheltered folks, starting at 11 a.m. at 411 Red Cross St. Upward of 60 to 70 individuals shuffle through to pick up some hot coffee, a warm meal and fellowship.
“We feel like we really still need to be here, on the streets, because we have so many people that just come walk [here] and have known us for several years,” Christine said Wednesday morning in a Red Cross parking lot as she greeted everyone that came by.
The outreach started with 10 peanut butter sandwiches and a drive around town dropping off to those in need.
“Quickly it became 20, 30, 40 [meals],” Christine said.
As the needs escalated, the couple knew they needed a more permanent location; they were asked to leave when serving from a gas station and homeless individuals were getting ticketed for loitering while waiting for them to arrive.
Bethesda Church offered up its parking lot for two years. Volunteers cannot serve inside the building on site, but they can store tables, chairs and tents they set up every Wednesday morning in anticipation of crowds.
Now, churches help out by hosting weekly meals and donating food to the cause.
Christine said the people coming are a mix of homeless and low-income families.
“Some have had housing and then couldn’t pay rent and got kicked out,” she said. “A one-bedroom in a rooming house, I believe, is $650 a month.”
The day shelter is about a mile away from the lunch location, not ideal for those living in the downtown area, according to Christine, but it’s definitely progress.
The shelter will be spacious with plenty of room to accommodate more than 100 people.
“You can very easily fit 40 people just in the main room,” McBride said. “Being crowded is a good problem to have actually. We’re not worried about that.”
The founders plan to upfit the kitchen with newer appliances, buy some furniture to make it cozy, add a second bathroom, provide office space for resource providers and work one-on-one with individuals, perhaps set up an art corner.
Evans of The Feast Gathering will host a meal and optional worship for a few hours on either Saturday and Sunday as well.
It’s not the first time McBride and Evans have partnered together. The new day shelter concept mimics another the two launched in 2016 in the basement of a United Methodist Church on Fifth Avenue.
“There was a project going out of that space called ‘Hope’s Lens,’ where people could create art,” she said. “And then we would take their art and try to sell it at a local gallery. There was also an art journal that came out two times a year featuring the art, the artist and their story.”
It served 30 to 50 people per day, five days a week, until flooding during Hurricane Florence in 2018 forced it to shutter.
In its place, hosted by different people, Hope Recuperative Care opened in 2019. It offers a safe space for homeless individuals to rest after being released from the hospital following surgeries or illness. It’s run by a 501(c)3 and no longer affiliated with the church.
McBride is also a partner of The Warming Shelter, a pop-up emergency refuge for anyone experiencing homelessness on Wilmington’s coldest nights. Any two consecutive nights the temperature drops below 30 degrees, the shelter opens at Trinity UMC, 1403 Market St.
The Warming Shelter served 93 guests over Christmas weekend and is opening again this Friday and Saturday, Feb. 3 through 4.
“United Methodists have a history of hosting some type of warming shelter,” McBride explained.
The spaces open up at 5:30 p.m. and offer snacks, warmth, toiletries and cots for overnight stays.
In light of the county commissioners considering a proposal to restrict sleeping on county-owned property, McBride has invited all five board members to join them for dinner this Friday at Trinity UMC. She wants them to meet and engage with the unhoused residents of the county and volunteers who work with them.
Her main purpose for inviting them is due to a recent ordinance proposal aimed at the homeless. If passed, it could make sleeping on county owned property from 10 p.m. to 7 p.m. illegal and also lead to the disposal of any personal items left unattended.
“We absolutely understand it’s an untenable situation,” McBride said of the proposed ordinance.
Commissioners and county staff have cited public health and safety concerns as the reasoning for the regulations. Between public urination, drug use and litter, the goal is to maintain cleanliness on county property, county manager Chris Coudriet said last month.
“There’s no easy answer for that, but I’m out of ideas,” McBride added. “I don’t know where people are gonna go and I expect the ordinance to pass.”
“I appreciate what you said that you’re out of ideas, but you know what? We still know what’s not a good idea,” Thompson said. “And that’s not a good idea to hide and shove away [people].”
Monday, commissioners will vote on the second reading — it passed 4-1 in the first and requires a second vote since there wasn’t a public hearing.
“I’ve been getting phone calls all week, like, ‘What are you doing about this?’” McBride said.
Also vice chair of the Cape Fear Homeless Continuum of Care, McBride was one of eight who signed a letter asking commissioners to reconsider the ordinance. She also sent a letter through her Warming Shelter initiative.
In preparation for next week’s commissioner vote, the Cape Fear Housing Coalition — with more than 90 partner agencies in the tri-county area — penned a note to commissioners Wednesday:
“At a time when housing costs are higher than ever, psychiatric care beds are severely limited, and the community stands to lose over 50 shelter beds due to the anticipated closure of the Salvation Army, it is incumbent upon our local governments to provide their unsheltered residents access to adequate shelter and services before taking any action to remove them from the premises.”
It encourages the board to reconsider the amended ordinance at the end of 2023 to give the Getting Home program more time to address the root of the problem.
“No person truly desires to sleep on the street, underneath cardboard, or in a stairwell – barriers such as mental health, active addiction, and co-occurring disabilities make street outreach a process that requires months of interactions and relationship building to achieve a successful intervention,” the letter continued.
While pastors and nonprofits entrenched with serving unsheltered populations understand the complexity of the situation, they agreed better options exist than restricting the homeless from certain areas.
According to the National Coalition to End Homelessness’ local government best practices, criminalizing sleeping outside is a move the agency does not recommend.
“What’s happening here in Wilmington is different, but we can look at other areas in the country that have had strategies that have worked,” McBride said.
“So, there’s an education and research piece. And, who’s doing that?” she asked.
Tina Ward, a volunteer helping to pack lunches for homeless individuals twice a week, sent a letter to commissioners Jan. 19. In it, she links to an article published by the New York Times highlighting how Houston, Texas, helps its unsheltered populations.
During the last decade, Houston officials moved more than 25,000 homeless people directly into housing. Its population of unsheltered has decreased 63% and the state has infused $100 million into the efforts. The article states county agencies and local service providers, corporations and nonprofits work in unison on a “housing first” approach.
“But housing first involves a different logic: When you’re drowning, it doesn’t help if your rescuer insists you learn to swim before returning you to shore. You can address your issues once you’re on land. Or not. Either way, you join the wider population of people battling demons behind closed doors,” the article reads.
In response to Ward’s correspondence, chair Bill Rivenbark sent an email back: “Thank you, Tina. This is going to be tough, but I’m not going to enable these people to live like they’re living cause they will be living that life forever if they don’t die sooner. Please pray for all of us.”
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