The morning is coming to a close at the City With Dwellings overflow shelter. Nine men and women shuffle into the van, some quiet and keeping to themselves, and others chatting loudly. The seats are slightly worn, and the air conditioner makes a low humming noise. It’s bright, a light breeze coming in through the open windows.
One man holds an iPod shuffle, his headphones in as he stares outside. Another looks down at an Android phone, running his hands over the cracked screen. Each clutching bus passes, they began the 10-minute ride over to the Samaritan Ministries food bank to eat lunch.
After lunch, these individuals are on their own for the rest of the day, until they walk to one of the overnight shelters in the evening.
"If you think about it, these people are on their feet walking all day,” said Adrienne Polychron, 71, a volunteer at City With Dwellings. “When they get to the shelter at night, they are exhausted, and ready to go straight to bed.”
City With Dwellings opened in 2012 as an overflow shelter due to staggering numbers of homeless men and women in need of housing that winter. The two main year-round shelters in downtown Winston-Salem, NC, are Samaritan Ministries and the Bethesda Shelter. Even with their respective resources, they cannot sustain the massive number of homeless individuals that come to this city in the winter months.
City With Dwellings opens up as an overflow shelter from December through March each year. It can hold up to 80 - 100 men and women every night, utilizing the space within St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Augsburg Lutheran Church, and First Presbyterian Church, and typically takes in 300 - 350 for the 4 months that it is open.
During the remaining months, it provides a day center open from 9:00 – 11:00 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Individuals can come to discuss housing options, receive bus passes, and connect with resources that can help them with employment and healthcare.
Lea Thullbery, head of City With Dwellings, has been volunteering with the homeless community for over 30 years, and said it has been “transformative.”
Both Bethesda and Samaritan are high-barrier shelters, which means that if there are any issues with an individual’s sobriety, they cannot stay there. City With Dwellings is low barrier, so they will take in individuals that may have some of these issues. However, the allotted time for any individual in these shelters is 90 days, and they must be out for 6 months before they are allowed to come back.
“Ninety days isn’t enough,” said Thullbery. “Winston-Salem is rich with resources for homeless individuals with disabilities, but they’re difficult to access without community support.”
The most recent study of homeless populations in Winston-Salem took place in 2013. The study indicated that there were about 407 homeless individuals living in Winston-Salem at the time, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
City With Dwellings is completely volunteer-based and costs about $60,000 a year to keep the doors open. It is funded solely by donations and grants from the city and the community.
Their priority is to make sure everyone has a place to stay every night. They arrange hospital stays for those who are sick and work with the Winston-Salem Police Department to detain highly intoxicated individuals in a sober room at the station until they can return to the shelter without cause for concern.
Polychron explained why she spends her free time at this shelter. “My friends always ask me, Adrienne, why are you doing this? The thing is, I’ve been volunteering my whole life. I enjoy talking to the people that come to this shelter, and I can talk to a wall, but I also like to listen.”
She went on to tell the story of one of their clients, who had been able to get a job working at the mall, but the pay was barely over minimum wage. He had to pay child support on top of what he was making, leaving nothing to live on. He was only able to work certain hours in order to meet the bus schedule and have transportation back downtown to shelter each night.
When the central public library closed in October of 2014, many homeless individuals who once sought daytime shelter there, found themselves on the streets, braving the coldest months in Winston-Salem, NC.
Store owners faced situations in which homeless men and women would see an open door, and wander in to seek warmth and, as one business employee phrased it, “to occasionally cry on your shoulder.”
According to the Downtown Bike Patrol, several stores on Trade Street even put up signs that read, ‘No Public Restrooms’ in order to dissuade individuals from coming into the store, who would potentially make their clientele uncomfortable.
Opie Kirby, owner of local establishment Finnigan’s, elaborated on how the homeless population impacted his business in particular.
“I’ve known Lea Thullbery for years, and I’ve volunteered at the shelter before and everything,” said Kirby. “But, I’m still running a business, and when I see individuals come in who won’t be able to pay their tab, I have to ask them to leave.”
“Many of these people are here because they have burned all of their bridges,” said Kirby. “I try to help out by making 500 sandwiches a year, but that only gives them a sandwich. It doesn’t solve any of their other problems.”
Thullbery, who was formerly the manager of Finnigan’s, has seen both sides of this dilemma. She emphasized that stores shouldn’t be villainized because they have to put their business and their customers first. She also encourages businesses to make a plan and post their policies, so servers will know who to wait on, and patrons will be dissuaded from buying food for homeless individuals and then leaving them alone in the establishment.
Kirby noted that while not an easy task, the best approach to help these people is to spend time and interact with them. Walking into a homeless shelter can be daunting, so, it’s important to be confident, because often there are individuals with mental illness and sobriety issues, and that can create feelings of uneasiness in many people.
Polychron oozes confidence when she volunteers, saying, “Never in four years have I felt at risk. They don’t want it to shut down, so they are very well-behaved. No one should be too intimidated to volunteer.”
Most people want to help those that are less fortunate but don’t know how to go about it. The natural inclination is to “throw money at the problem,” but as Kirby put it, “that isn’t going to change the cycle.”