Focus on Housing: On the Road in East Durham

Donors and community leaders joined Foundation staff for two simultaneous bus tours of East Durham in early March, one based on Education and the other on Housing. The following story is one writer’s account of the Housing tour. To view a photo-journalistic account of the Education tour, please click here.

The early-morning chill was just starting to lift, but the daily operations at Durham’s Urban Ministries had already been in full swing for hours.

Clients of the nonprofit’s programs and workshops, which offer services like financial literacy training and substance abuse treatment, filled the waiting room while staff tended to their needs, and residents of the homeless shelter filtered in and out of its tiled hallways.

Down the hall from the shelter’s many beds, which offer a safe haven for Durham’s homeless, Triangle Community Foundation donors and community leaders gathered on the morning of March 3 to hear about the shelter’s ongoing work and growing financial needs.

The visitors were participating in a Foundation bus tour of housing-based nonprofits in East Durham, part of an effort to inform donors of the vast needs and the services that important nonprofits — including Urban Ministries — provide to residents of this neighborhood. Other donors were on a different bus visiting education-based organizations, and the two groups came together for lunch and a panel discussion afterward.

As the tour began, Gina Andersen, community programs officer for the Foundation, pointed to the specific challenges East Durham has faced, such as high rates of crime and poverty.

“This is a neighborhood that has a lot of critical needs,” she said, “and learning about them together is the first step to making a collective difference here.”

Maidi Hall, a long-time Foundation donor, said she hoped the tour would give her a broader picture of who her donations were impacting in the Durham community.

“I’ve for years been supportive of some of the organizations we’re seeing today,” she said.

“I thought it would be great to actually see them rather than just know about them through their literature and what I’ve read about them.”

Rolling past the area’s many empty lots and aging storefronts, the tour bus passed several notable organizations working to end homelessness and poverty in Durham, such as the Durham Rescue Mission, the Durham Housing Authority and the Durham Social Services Department.

Olive Joyner, associate director of Housing for New Hope, guided the tour. She stressed the danger of the new, stricter ways that the government is defining homelessness, which allow vulnerable residents to slip through the cracks.

“The needs around homelessness have stayed the same,” she said. “It’s really a challenge now for us to deem that someone is chronically homeless. That’s one way to get rid of homelessness — to change the definition.”

As tour participants gathered around Urban Ministries, the organization’s clinical director, Maruka Rivers, explained another problem that’s developed in recent years: a sharp drop in state funding. She said funding from private foundations keep Urban Ministries and other nonprofits’ doors open as requirements for state and federal funding grow stricter and more targeted.

“Private dollars really help us to be flexible — to make our own decisions about who needs resources,” Rivers said.

The group also heard from Cynthia Harris, who directs Housing for New Hope’s rapid rehousing team, which searches out homeless families with children and finds them housing within 30 days.

Harris said she’s been working for months with a young mother of six who is working and attending school but needs a little extra financial assistance to stay on her feet.

“We’re getting more and more younger families,” she said. “Most clients come in with housing barriers — criminal history, bad rental history. Landlords trust us. Sometimes we can place families within a week or two weeks.”

The next stop on the tour was just blocks away at a canary-yellow house with construction workers milling about out front. This was Families Moving Forward, formerly Genesis Home, another shelter helping families transition out of or avoid homelessness.

Genesis Home recently merged with Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network to form Families Moving Forward. Ryan Fehrman, FMF’s executive director, said the organization has already begun taking new approaches to its work, such as stepping in to keep at-risk families from becoming homeless in addition to providing shelter for families that are currently homeless.

“I’ve got goosebumps — it’s really exciting to see,” Fehrman said.

The construction on the building will create additional family shelter units, bumping the number of units from 15 to 21 — an increase that’s desperately needed in Durham’s crowded housing market, he said.

“In large families with a single parent, you’re going to need a housing subsidy or you’re going to need to win the lottery,” Fehrman said. “We’re trying to prepare folks to be on their own.”

He said for organizations like FMF to be successful, they must collaborate with other Durham nonprofits.

“We have all these agencies working to end homelessness, but it’s going to be hard for one agency to end it alone,” he said. “We need to have similar systems if we’re going to be successful.”

Margareta Claesson, a TCF donor, said she appreciates this approach to social activism.

“I’m so glad to hear different organizations are cooperating and finding more efficient ways to work together,” she said.

But Fehrman also pointed out the need for community members to do their part by donating funds and volunteer work — and not just during the holidays.

“You are not going to win a war on poverty with one month a year,” he said. “And looking at the numbers, we’re losing.”

As the morning drew to a close, the tour bus rolled up to the group’s final stop: Dove House. The tour group crowded into a small, cozy kitchen with a large dining table and a chore board attached to the wall. Several women sat eating and talking at the table, stopping to greet the group as they entered.

A smiling woman introduced herself as Sandra Edwards, transitional housing coordinator, and explained Dove House’s mission: to shelter homeless women and give them time to get back on their feet.

“Sometimes you have to crawl before you walk — that’s what Dove House is,” she said.

The women sitting around the table each shared their stories in turn. A young girl named Alexis explained that being forced to commute by cab to her job at an All State insurance office in Charlotte put her in such financial distress that she became homeless.

“When I first met Ms. Sandra, I thought she was so strict. She acted like my mom,” she said, laughing. “But she sees the positive things about me.”

At the close of the tour, Joyner said her work fighting homelessness has taught her that most people just need someone to affirm their value — to help them see they have the power to contribute something to their community.

“The biggest gift you can give someone is affirming who they are,” she said.

“For many homeless people, no one gave them the gift of understanding who they are, how their brain works. They’ve been called lazy, stupid, all of those names — it’s being able to say you’re none of those.”

Jim Stewart, who serves on the board of TCF, said he was glad to get out and about and see what the organizations TCF funds can accomplish.

“It’s good to see things happening,” he said. “But it’s far short of what’s needed.”