By Chad Nance
Dad is a clean cut African-American man who has lost his job and been unable to find another. He wears two layers of clothes and a baseball hat from which cold rain drips as he steps inside of 633 W. 4th Street with his wife and son. Mom is a pretty woman with long hair and clothes that show she is struggling to maintain her dignity and a sense of normalcy even while this family’s world is falling apart. Their sixteen year-old son looks like every kid you know, hunched over against the frigid rain, his face showing the strain of their situation. Tonight this family could be torn apart by their own poverty or they could find a way to stay together as a unit. These are the realities on the streets of Camel City… these are the impossible choices that some of our neighbors face.
On December 1st months of preparation, fundraising, political maneuvering, and back breaking logistical work culminated in the opening of Winston-Salem’s winter overflow homeless shelters. The volunteers and staff of City With Dwellings began this journey the moment that the 2014-2015 shelters closed on March 16th… and they will again next March 17th. Their efforts are important, vital, and humane.
Why do these men and women dedicate so much of their lives to keep our most vulnerable neighbors safe and out of the elements while the wind howls, the temperature drops, and the rain or snow falls? There is a single, simple answer. Love.
It is this love that has helped lift up 41 year-old Jason Hegler who is originally from Lancaster, South Carolina. By his own admission Jason brought many of his own problems upon himself. Alcohol and drug abuse caused him to lose his job, his family, and everything thing else that ties us to society. This left him alone, drifting on the streets and in survival mode. His face is lined like that of a much older man. The streets do that to a person. Wear and tear of the human spirit combined with the brutal abuses of a drug problem and subsistence living have aged this man who should be in the prime of life. Jason has lived in several different cities from Charlotte to Florida, but it was here in Winston-Salem that he finally found hope.
In the winter of 2015 Jason was sheltering at First Presbyterian’s overflow downtown. There he met City with Dwellings supporter and First Presbyterian Overflow Team member Lee Smith. “I might be dead if it wasn’t for Mrs. Smith,” Jason said. She was able to help him get into a drug rehab program. Jason has been clean now for a year and has been attending meetings and sticking to his methadone program at Insight Human Services. With the help of Smith and others he now has a housing voucher and is waiting for rehab work to be done on his apartment.
“I slept out in the snow last year,” Jason said. Up until Monday when the overflow shelters opened Jason had been living alone under a bridge near downtown. “I could sleep for a little while, but when early morning came it would get so cold you couldn’t sleep. I’d just sit there and kinda of ball up and wait until daylight. We’ve all just been out here waiting for the overflow to open”
After speaking with Jason and talking to a few more of our neighbors who would be using the shelters that first night, my own son and I saw the family of three. A volunteer came inside and asked Richard Cassidy what could be done regarding the 16 year-old young man. This situation illuminates the gaps in our system that families can find themselves tumbling through. The kid is too old to go with his mother to the family shelter at Salvation Army and his father cannot be housed there either. He can’t go to one of the overflow shelters with the other adult men because he is too young to do so. The only place the 16 year-old might be able to be housed is at the Children’s Home. While the Children’s Home is a good facility with a dedicated staff, it would mean shattering this family. Dad will have to go to a shelter for men. Mom will have to go to a shelter for women, and their son would go to the Children’s Home.
My 14 year-old son (I take my children to these events and to cover these stories in order to teach them about how lucky they are) and I walked out into the cold. We had to hunch over ourselves to keep the cold rain from running down our collars and our backs. Dad’s face was grim, but he seemed to be resigned to the fact that they would all be separated. Mom was crying and talking loudly at the volunteers. To some this may have seemed like belligerent rudeness, but to anyone standing close by it was clear that this woman’s heart was breaking in two. Her family was about to be torn apart and sent to different parts of the city. Dad would be woken up at first light, if he slept at all. Mom would also be woken up at a different location and sent back on the streets. They would have to find one another and figure out a way to locate their son the next day if they wanted to see him. The young man had no idea what was going to happen to him or his parents.
“Baby. Please settle down. They are trying to help,” Dad said to her in a quiet, controlled voice.
“I don’t want to be quiet,” Mom said through tears.
Their 16 year-old just watched his parents, tears mixing with the rain falling on his face. He turned and walked a few steps away when he saw my son. He moved away from us to hide his face. In America we abuse our poor and the most damage comes from one simple and terrible emotion… shame. How many times can people get hammered without breaking?
Monday night this family stood on the edge of a precipice. Poverty was literally ripping them apart, and more than just the family was breaking.
Love reared its head once more. The good people of New Story Church found a way to take the family in and shelter them intact. Through the efforts of Rev. Russ May of Anthony’s Plot and others, a way for this family to stay together was found at the Salvation Army Shelter. Everyday is a new struggle for families in these situations. A new challenge, and sadly, often a new heartbreak. There are dedicated people who are helping.
This family could be your family. They are your neighbors and they are your friends. It is not hard to imagine being in that situation and facing the horrible choices that this family must make on a daily basis until they are able (only with the help of their community) to find some way out of the darkness. It is our responsibility as a community to come together and help those who are being broken by poverty and a harsh economy and world. Right now there is violence, anger, and plenty of heartlessness to go around. In a world that sometimes seems to grow harder and uglier by the day there is only one sane response for any of us. Love.
City with Dwellings has overflow shelters for men at Augsburg Lutheran, First Presbyterian (January-March 16th), New Story Church, and Redeemer Presbyterian Church (for December only). Ladies are being sheltered at St. Timothy’s Episcopal church. All check-in occurs 7pm nightly at 633 west Fourth Street, a space donated by Centenary United Methodist Church.
If you would like to help your neighbors in a time of need you can donate to City with Dwellings HERE or contact your church and others to find out about providing meals and needed items by contacting City with Dwellings or a participating house of worship.