The phone was ringing off the hook at the Interactive Resource Center on the third floor of the Bessemer United Methodist Church on the eastern fringe of Greensboro on a recent Friday afternoon.
Co-manager Brantly Grier conferred briefly with a volunteer at the new center, which provides job training and placement, and other services to the city’s growing homeless population.
What at first appears to be a constant stream of interruptions is actually a snapshot of the job for Grier, one of two paid staff members: quick bursts of conversation with volunteers to coordinate services, one-on-one counseling sessions with clients and logistical troubleshooting.
“What are your needs?” he asked a client dressed in a hooded, heavy canvass Carhartt jacket and black toboggan. “Work,” was the simple answer.
Grier told the man an assessment would be unnecessary because a previous caseworker had already logged his abilities. A job-training class would begin on Monday. Would the man like to sign up? “That sounds great,” the client replied.
Then Grier suggested a more immediate solution. “I can call Ron Tuck right now,” he said. “He owns the mechanic store down the street. He has a car detailership around here.” Another client came in. This one needed to find a pro-bono lawyer to help him get disability benefits. Grier promised to help. Then the client added, “I’m trying to eat right now. Could you give me a bus pass to go over to Urban Ministry?” “We ain’t got time to go over to Urban Ministry,” Grier said. “I’m gonna have Andre make some sandwiches for everybody.”
Grier, who was once homeless himself, describes the Interactive Resource Center as a pilot program for Greensboro, formed under the umbrella of the Homelessness Prevention Coalition of Guilford County, Greensboro Urban Ministry and the Day Center Committee.
The resource center grew out of an effort to organize a homeless day center that began early last year. A network of homeless people, church volunteers, secular activists and service providers built a network of relationships amongst each other. In October, when the economy dropped over the ledge, members of the coalition sprung into action to undertake a second task: requisitioning emergency overnight shelter for homeless people as the cold season loomed. The homeless organizers of WE, or Winter Emergency program, in turn, had been painting and cleaning over the past few weeks to get the Interactive Resource Center on Bessemer Avenue ready to receive clients.
Andre Young, who is active with WE, said the program has managed to secure shelter for about 60 people, but organizers would like to ramp that number up to 100. With traditional overflow shelters operating at capacity, many homeless people have few options for getting out of the cold overnight, and Young estimated that 100-150 people are braving the weather, making themselves susceptible to colds, flu and pneumonia.
Organizers say that the Interactive Resource Center on Bessemer Avenue is not the anticipated day center, and an announcement about a more grand facility is rumored to be in the offing, but the resource center includes many of the same features. Staff plans to install sinks, a shower, lockers and a washer and dryer.
Sessions for job training, GED classes, housing counseling and men’s support therapy are inked onto a calendar in Grier’s office for the rest of the month.
Grier said the resource center has received $15,000 from the city of Greensboro. Additional financial support has come from the new Greensboro Cares effort, the Weaver Foundation and the Moses Cone-Wesley Long Community Health Foundation. Grier said the resource centers could use computers, overcoats and other clothing, food to provide lunches and a volunteer to do laundry.
The staff welcomes clients to sit inside a waiting room, if only to get out of the cold and rest their feet, but most are actively pursuing a plan for survival.
“Right now, I’m in a crisis,” said 42year-old Anthony Wilson, who was doing maintenance and janitorial work until it dried up last March. “My old lady’s pregnant and expecting a child, and I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to support her. Family members give you five dollars or ten dollars here and there, but it’s not enough.”
Wilson’s brother spotted an ad in the daily newspaper advertising the resource center’s services, and drove him over. Wilson said he needs both employment and housing. In the short term, he said he would accept volunteer work so that he can build up contacts and goodwill to help him land more stable employment.
His wife has been staying with family members, but he must find his own accommodations.
“It’s hard —I’m not adjusting to it — trying to figure out where I’m going to get the next meal, trying to figure out where I’m going to sleep,” he said. “Sometimes I sleep in the street or in the park, wherever I can find a place.”