One sentence into our interview, Gary Smith has already worked in Alaska, traveled to Oklahoma, been lured to Louisiana, moved on to Fayetteville and quickly ended up in Raleigh. It's as if he thinks he has five minutes to tell all.
We go back, and details emerge. He served in the Army for eight years, including a stint in Somalia. He worked in a fish processing plant in Alaska. His mother was ill in Oklahoma, so he came home. He worked construction, a "fair-paying, not a high-paying job," he says, and owned a sweet '78 Lincoln Town Car when Hurricane Katrina ripped New Orleans. He heard there was big money to be made rebuilding the Gulf Coast, and "like a dummy," he bit. He drove to Louisiana, took jobs with contractors who didn't pay him, and ended up losing his car when it ran out of gas, was towed and he couldn't afford to pay the fines.
That's when he hitchhiked, with a lot of walking, to North Carolina, spending a few days in a Salvation Army shelter in Fayetteville before someone told him there was more work in Raleigh. He arrived at the South Wilmington Street Center about three years ago. As a veteran, he automatically qualified for a bed.
Smith never envisioned himself living in a shelter before he landed in Raleigh, he says. "I ain't that stupid," he remembers thinking. "I lived from paycheck to paycheck, sure. But I ain't that stupid. People don't realize how close they are to living in one."
Smith is 49, in good health, an intelligent, low-key guy who answers questions directly and with a hint of humor, if not really a smile. He says he has been sober for 26 years—no alcohol, no drugs.
I asked him about job interviews. Was he able to suck up and grin at the appropriate times? "I don't smile much," he answered, his lips stifling any evidence to the contrary. "I lay out what I can do. I don't feed 'em a bunch of bull like a lot of people do, and then you find out they can't do what they say they can."
It's a question because in three years Smith has worked some day-labor jobs, but he has never landed steady construction work, nor done what he really wants to do, get a security job for a company or a mall through one of the big contractors, like Wackenhut. He says he's had security jobs, but in Raleigh contractors want their employees to have certification in the field, which he doesn't have.
He did land one steady job, which ironically got in the way of finding others: For two years, Smith was a water-supply specialist with the N.C. National Guard unit based in Benson. It put some money in his pocket, but when prospective employers saw it on his application, they worried that he would be shipped off to Iraq. "We're not hiring now," he was told. "Come back, though, when you're out."
He left the Guard at the end of September when his two years were up.
Smith gives the South Wilmington Street Center mixed reviews. He speaks very highly of Frank Lawrence, his case manager before Lawrence was promoted to center director a few months ago. The other case managers, he says, aren't as good.
"Overall, they've got a revolving door, because it's set up to fail," Smith says. There are a lot of rules (about where you can eat and drink, for example) designed to trip people up and disqualify them for the limited number of beds. There's not much help finding work, just a lot of referrals to other agencies that don't help either.
What does he think of Raleigh? Again, he offers a mixed review. Smith sees a concerted effort by city and county officials to drive the homeless off of Raleigh's downtown streets, but little effort to help them with housing and jobs.
"The average persons, Raleighans, are great," Smith says. "But the people who run everything ... they don't want to see people like me around. They think it lowers their standards.
"This 10-year plan to end homelessness?" he continues. "It's not a plan to end homelessness, it's a plan to run homelessness out of Raleigh. They don't care where we go as long as we're not in Raleigh. Makes their life a little easier."