Gwendolyn Jones can't wait to get out of the Urban Ministries of Durham homeless shelter.
"I was in that bed over there for a long time," Jones says, pointing to one of two thin cots along the twelve-by-sixteen room in the downtown shelter's female wing. The room doubles as a kitchen and a place for immediate-emergency guests to sleep.
Three months ago, Jones says, she fell out with her sister, who kicked her out of the Goldsboro house they shared. A fifty-seven-year-old living on Social Security, Jones found herself stranded and broke, with all of the local shelters filled to capacity.
She called United Way for help and was referred to Urban Ministries. Soon after, she arrived in Durham by Greyhound and went to work for the shelter's facility maintenance team. At the time, it wasn't much of a "team," as fellow shelter resident Betty Mitchell noticed when she arrived a month later.
"Gwendolyn was working by herself, and I didn't want to see her doing it all," says Mitchell, a seventy-four-year-old who also receives Social Security.
They became fast friends and started cleaning their unit together. Last week, they moved into their own place in the Lakewood area, a two-bedroom apartment with a washer, dryer, and dishwasher. This is Urban Ministries' mandate: to move its residents into permanent housing within three months. In fact, this idea—that it's better to get people out of shelters faster—is quickly being adopted by shelters nationwide.
The rent for their new place is $825 per month—"a stretch for their income," caseworker Fred Stoppelkamp admits. But they'll have help. In February, Urban Ministries received a $46,557 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which the shelter will use to cover the women's deposit, first month's rent, and utilities, and provide supplements for up to a year, as needed.
The grant, Stoppelkamp explains, was "wrapped around roommates. [HUD] would support us if we could match folks as roommates, and then we could combine their income, and then we'd have a better opportunity of finding a two-bedroom place."
The increasing focus on rapid rehousing and job placement is driven by HUD and rooted in data collected by the agency, along with The National Alliance to End Homelessness and other researchers in homeless management and city planning.
The concept was first introduced in 2009 as part of the Obama administration's stimulus package. According to a brief issued by HUD in 2014, "people assisted by rapid re-housing experience higher rates of permanent housing placement and similar or lower rates of return to homelessness after the assistance ends compared to those assisted by transitional housing or who only receive emergency shelter."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Gwendolyn Jones shows off the new oven at the apartment she moved into with roommate Betty Mitchell who she met while staying at the Urban Ministries of Durham.
Across the country, many homeless-services providers are moving away from the long-term shelter model. In Durham, it's changing, too. Just four of the city's ten shelters strictly adhere to the old model, but those facilities are dedicated either to recovering addicts or homeless veterans, for whom long-term sheltering makes sense.
One of them, Families Moving Forward, is changing to an emergency-shelter model on July 1. Durham Rescue Mission, meanwhile, provides both types of shelters, but it mostly offers long-term care.
Urban Ministries, founded in 1983, has provided its share of short- and long-term sheltering since it opened.
"Some people used to stay with us many years," says Bryan Gilmer, director of marketing and development at UMD. "And now, when people check in for the first time, they meet with their case manager, who makes a plan to end their homelessness with them. Not everybody can do it that quickly. But that's the aspiration. And many people are able to. Because the idea is, the shorter the period of homelessness, by far, the better that is for you."
In the previous fiscal year, Urban Ministries sheltered 899 people; of those, 237 acquired permanent housing. Gilmer says he expects better results this year.
The UMD shelter, he adds, doesn't put a hard cap on how long each resident should stay. That's still assessed case-by-case. Gilmer says the average stay during the first quarter of 2016 was twenty-four days.
Jones and Mitchell are now the fourth roommate match that Urban Ministries has housed through the HUD initiative. There are others at the shelter, waiting.
One challenge, says Stoppelkamp, is finding Durham landlords willing to rent to people with low incomes. So far, Urban Ministries has found only one: Lee Ray Bergman Real Estate, which owns more than nine hundred rental properties in Durham. Trudi Castellanos, a manager at Bergman, says her company is working on setting aside three more two-bedroom units for UMD residents.
Bergman agreed to allow separate leases for Jones and Mitchell, which ensures that neither will be evicted if the other leaves. Instead, UMD will have to find a replacement.
But the real-estate company has just a 3 percent vacancy rate. So Urban Ministries has made it a priority to find other landlords willing to place faith in programs and grants that help support the homeless.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Gwendolyn Jones, left, tests out her key on the front door of her new apartment while her roommate, Betty Mitchell, unpacks some shoes in her bedroom as they move into their new place together in Durham.
Stopplelkamp typically carries a caseload of between twenty-five to thirty-five residents. He says 60 percent of the people he works with are like Jones and Mitchell: they became estranged from family or became victims of other circumstances that wouldn't render people with better incomes homeless.
"No one becomes homeless overnight," says Stoppelkamp. "It is a series of events. And no one wants to come to the shelter. And we don't want them there."
Now that they've found a place to live, both women say they want jobs. Mitchell says she'll work as many hours a week as she is able. Jones recently completed an intense one-week workshop with StepUp Ministry, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that helps homeless people find employment.
The big day—moving day—finally arrived on June 17. The small apartment they found is at the bottom of a long sloping driveway. There's a bus stop just across the main road. The unit is very basic: a common area for cooking and dining, bedrooms on either side of that, and a bathroom to share.
As Stoppelkamp drives off to pick up some furniture donated by Bergman to the UMD tenants, the two new roomies stand near the stove and discuss how they're going to divvy up cooking duties.
Jones takes her time, while Mitchell, who demonstrates her own cooking style with a little dance, likes to get it done fast.
"I'm a mover and a shaker," she says. "So let me know when you're going to be in the kitchen, because I'll stay out of your way."
They'll be all right.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Model Housing"