COVID-19 has changed many things for people over the last year, for some worse than others.  One of the consequences of the pandemic has been a significant increase in the number of people experiencing street homelessness.

The Winston-Salem Forsyth County Continuum of Care (WSFC CoC) estimate the increase in street homelessness is nearly threefold over the last year.   Despite the challenges of COVID-19 both our community’s shelters and street outreach teams have continued to provide services non-stop throughout the pandemic.  While the shelters have had to reconfigure what shelter looks like, our community has about the same number of shelter beds available as we did pre-pandemic.

“When the pandemic first hit last spring, many people felt safer not being in a congregate shelter.  They were able to settle into a camp where they have much more autonomy to be with their friends, their partner, and to come and go as they please. The weather this winter just hasn’t been so bad that people want to give that up,” said Tracy Mohr, Interim Executive Director of City with Dwellings.

Several organizations in town work specifically to address the needs of the people experiencing homelessness on the streets, including the Empowerment Project of WFUBMC, City with Dwellings, Watchmen of the Streets, and the Community Intake Center run by United Way of Forsyth County. These organizations work year-round to ensure people living on the streets have access to resources to meet their basic needs including food, clothing and basic hygiene.  Their primary focus however is building relationships based on trust and respect to help them navigate real and lasting changes in their life and help them access shelter, healthcare and permanent housing.

“Life on the streets is hard”, says Kurtz. “Our street outreach teams connect with people to make sure they have their basic needs met. Their real focus is on building relationships with people and help them navigate the complicated pathways to both health care and housing. Our goal isn’t to help people be comfortable on the streets, it’s to help them get housed.  The WSFC CoC helps coordinate resources in our community to make sure we never lose sight of that vision.  The solution to homelessness is housing.  The path to housing for each person will be unique to their strengths and challenges, but as a system we know what is effective:  making sure people have access to shelter, and for those that don’t, making sure their most basic needs are met and then prioritize connecting people to health care and housing.  Anything that deviates from this makes moving people off the streets harder.”

Lea Thullbery, Director for Street Outreach with City with Dwellings has been building relationships with people living on our streets, in tent communities, and in and out of shelters for over five years. “Focusing on the important goals, helping people access the rich array of services like health care and permanent housing is what helps people get off the streets.  So many of our neighbors living on the street have experienced closed doors in their quest to access assistance because they have a lack of patience, “acceptable” social skills, don’t know how or where to go, or just being sick and tired of being sick and tired. Our mission is to build a relationship of trust and walk alongside our neighbors as they navigate the complex systems in our community from procuring vital documentation (NC State issued ID, Social Security Card, or Birth Certificate) to navigating appointments for mental health care, physical health care, and substance abuse treatment. Thoughtful and careful collaboration between people and organizations serving all of our neighbors experiencing homelessness or recently housed is a critical step in breaking the cycle of homelessness in our community.”

Iain De Jong, a leading expert on ending homelessness, provides advice to communities working to end street homelessness.  His recommendations include: providing basic sanitation services, coordinated outreach teams to connect people to services, pathways to housing, relationship building, and NOT providing on-site feeding programs, tents or other amenities which make persistent stays on the street possible.

Ending homelessness requires coordination between multiple complex systems including health and mental health care, the legal system and housing providers.  One way the community’s Continuum of Care is helping people to end their homelessness is by building relationships one person at a time.  “We know people by name.  We know their challenges and their strengths and our Community Intake Center helps match them to resources in the community designed to support their access to housing,” says Kurtz.

One of the community’s most successful programs for addressing street homelessness is the HEARRT Program.  This partnership between United Way, The Empowerment Team and City with Dwellings helps people who have been living on the streets with persistent health challenges and provides them with their own apartment and intensive supports. “The program is very small, we can currently serve a maximum of seven people, but the changes are real.  Over the last year we have permanently housed 6 people from the streets that almost everyone else had given up on.” Says Kurtz.  “We have estimated that housing just one of the people we house through HEARRT saved our community over $500,000 in emergency medical care, law enforcement calls and jail.  Housing is cheap comparatively.  It costs less than $15,000 per person to house them and provide on-site support for a year.”

How to Help the Community

The pandemic has presented significant challenges to the process of helping people get housed.  The WSFC CoC and its partners have created additional shelter options to assist with meeting the need of the growing population of people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. However, the pressures on the system are growing, particularly with the looming eviction crisis once the eviction moratorium is lifted. 

Our community is blessed with many organizations already working to address the crisis, including ways to help people living in tent cities. Residents are urged to volunteer with one of several organizations that are addressing the issue, including providing the organizations with in-kind donations, assisting with cleanup of tent sites, and other activities.

These agencies include:

Bethesda Center for the Homeless , City with Dwellings, Empowerment Project, Family Services ,  Experiment in Self Reliance (ESR),  Family Services, The Salvation Army, Samaritan Ministries, United Way of Forsyth County, Veterans Helping Veterans Heal, The Veterans Administration, and Winston-Salem Rescue Mission.

To support the ongoing work of the WSFC CoC please visit www.donateunited.org .

To learn more about the CoC please visit: www.forsythendhomelessness.org

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