“We Need More Affordable Housing for the Working Poor in Raleigh…”

I had an illuminating conversation with Frankie Lawrence, who runs the South Wilmington Street Homeless Shelter for Men.  If you are a single male and homeless in Wake County, this is where you go.  After I did the phone interview, I went over to the South Wilmington Street Shelter to visit in person, and I was so glad I did.  Frank and Bill run a really great facility and as I wrote to David Harris, Director of Housing for Wake County, “I must say that I’ve been totally blown away by the enthusiasm, commitment and actions of your staff (at least the ones I’ve come in contact with so far).  The shelter wasn’t what I expected at all, and all your staff really care about the homeless in our county.  They go above and beyond what I expected from government employees.”

Wilmington Street Men's Homeless Shelter BedsThe shelter doesn’t have enough room to meet demand so every morning, it issues a list so everyone knows in advance if they will be able to sleep there that night.  Frank explained how the lottery system works, “The men that stay at the shelter can see the lottery list before they leave in the morning (the list is posted at 6am in the Shelter) so they have an idea of their chances for re-entry that evening,” His sense is that some men who use his shelter are able to stay with friends or find a cheap motel room for the night.  Others sleep in the woods or in abandoned buildings.  Approximately 2-15 men are turned away each night, the number varies. The total number of beds in the facility is 234.  Those enrolled in Bill’s case management program get a guaranteed bed.

Most citizens of Wake County have never set foot in the Men’s Homeless Shelter, and some may even be afraid of coming here.  When we think of a homeless shelter, we don’t think of a clean, well-maintained facility.  But that’s what you’ll find here at the Wilmington Street Shelter.  There are GED classes, job readiness training classes, and soon entrepreneurship classes offered here.  I saw a group of men and women studying hard for their GED and met with the Wake Tech instructor who taught the class.

Lockers at Men's ShelterThere is no day time storage for the men’s possessions using the emergency shelter. Frank clarified, “The men that are in the case management program can leave their belongings at the shelter during the day (provided it fits into the space provided for them).  The beds have corresponding wall lockers and one drawer that is attached to the bed that they are sleeping in.  He added, “All of our beds have this arrangement but those that are not involved in the case management program have to take their things with them when they leave in the morning.”

According to him, over 2,000 unduplicated single men use his facility every year.

On white flag nights, when the temperature dips below 32 degrees F or when it’s 38 degrees F with precipitation, he’s allowed to let more men in and he doesn’t turn anyone away.  The shelter also manages 19 apartments on Snow Avenue.  A select few men who voluntarily enter a formal program are allowed to live there while they are coached by a social worker placed based on space availability.

Frank Lawrence said the shelter is always ready to help anyone willing to enroll in case management services.  They offer classes through Wake Tech at the facility, and the Healing Place offers substance abuse counseling during the day.  Given the resources at hand, the shelter does its best to support the men it serves.

Frank Lawrence (below, right) believes that if there was more affordable housing available in the $250-500 a month range, the demand for the shelter would decrease by as much as 50 percent.

“Generally 30-50% of the men may have some low paying jobs that they are doing (this could include a range of employment from part-time, temp labor to permanent full-time employment).  They are the working poor — able-bodied men with no known substance abuse or mental health issues.  They are just not making enough to afford rent.  We need to be able to offer them housing that fits their limited budgets.”

The other group of men who use his facility have disabilities or major issues to deal with and require substance abuse and mental health services in addition to housing.

As Frank walked me through the dining area (which also doubles as a TV room and emergency shelter on cold/rainy nights), he explained that the white walls may soon include inspirational quotes if the County authorizes is. It was something I asked him about because the white walls have a bit of an institutional feeling).  I took pictures of the kitchen staff and the front desk staff so Wake County residents can virtually ‘meet’ all the wonderful people who serve our community.  The other day, I met a veteran who lived at the Wilmington Street Shelter for 16 months.  As someone who experienced this facility and its people first hand, he personally benefited from the hospitality offered by this facility.

Frank also mentioned that the shelter will provide a bed to those who have a doctor’s note and are suffering from an illness.  They have a medical respite bed program and a person can stay up to 14 days in the shelter.

If you are a single man in Raleigh/Wake County and you wind up homeless, here’s what you’d need to do:

  1. Go to the shelter and register.  You’ll be given a bed the first night you arrive.  After that, you’re put on a lottery list.
  2. After that first night, if you’d like to stay at the shelter again, you can either come to the South Wilmington Street Center to check the list or call and find out what your number is on the list.  The list is also posted at Cornerstone on 220 Snow Ave so you can check your number there as well.
  3. Not everyone gets in every night so if you’re out of luck, you’ll have to figure out where to sleep that night.  The lottery system is the most fair and equitable way to make sure every man has a fair chance of being selected and no bias enters the process.
  4. Consider enrolling for the classes and services offered at the shelter!

There is an empty warehouse that hasn’t been leased in years next door to the South Wilmington Homeless Shelter.  I heard there was once a plan to turn that into affordable housing.  I wonder if it’s time to resurrect those plans…. That number is still ringing in my ears: “2,000 unduplicated men come through our facility every year.”  Wow.  “Half of them work but don’t earn enough to rent a roof over their heads.

If the residents of Wake County are truly committed to ending homelessness or at least making a noticeable dent in the problem, I see the potential to innovate and develop a housing solution that the rest of the country can learn from.  Why not?

In the meantime, if you own a business and you can offer jobs or training opportunities for the homeless men in Bill’s case management program, get in touch with me and I’ll forward your information to him (or call him at the shelter).  You can email me at homelessincarolina@gmail.com.  Help one man get a job or a marketable skill and make a dent in the homelessness problem that way.

[I updated and edited this post after actually visiting the shelter and seeing it with my own eyes].