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Faces of homelessness

Halfway through a 10-year plan, Raleigh lags in solutions

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If you've spent any time on Fayetteville Street in Raleigh this year, you've probably seen Joe Donovan, Dan Schooley and Gary Smith. They spend a fair amount of time there: Joe going in and out of the library to use the computers; Dan selling his drawings; Gary a dry, observant presence.

Or, if you've been in the South Wilmington Street Center, the county shelter on the outskirts of Raleigh, you may have seen them there. Because these three guys—weather-beaten, smart, resilient men who survive without much help or money—are among the homeless in our midst: three guys who could use some help.

Indy readers may remember Joe. He was profiled in a 2003 story titled "Divided minds" about the state's mental health programs. In that piece, Joe was one of three clients who questioned the "reform" agenda of Gov. Mike Easley's administration.

An ex-Marine and computer programmer who was battling manic-depression, Joe has had his ups and downs since. For a time, he worked as a client advocate for the state. Then he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which he had removed in the Veterans Administration hospital in Durham. When he was employed, he lost his Social Security disability benefits. He hasn't gotten them back, so he can't afford an apartment right now. At 43, his only home is the shelter.

That's where Joe met Dan, 30, and Gary, 49, neither of whom has found what he was looking for since coming to Raleigh in the last four years. Both admit to substance-abuse problems in the past—the distant past. Both say they're sober now. Still, they couldn't find steady work even in Raleigh's boom economy. At present, there's no work at all.

Ironically, Dan says, because he has no drug or alcohol issues, he doesn't fit the profile of men the homeless shelter and other Wake County agencies are set up to help.

The same for Gary, but because he, like Joe, is a veteran, he qualifies for a bed at the shelter every night. Dan doesn't, and sleeps in the woods when, as often happens, he loses the lottery for the limited number of undesignated beds at the shelter.

I met Dan and Gary a couple of months ago after Joe called me with a question. Did I know anything about Wake County's 10-year plan to end homelessness? Joe asked. The three of them didn't.

"Not once have I been approached about this 10-year plan," Dan said to me as the others nodded. "Not once has anyone approached me and offered to help me get back on my feet. In four years."

It's going on five years since the City of Raleigh, Wake County, and the Triangle United Way and other social services agencies agreed, in January 2004, to develop a 10-year "action plan" to end homelessness. Other cities and counties across the nation did likewise in response to a Bush administration initiative.

In September, the various agencies held a one-day "fair" in Moore Square, a few blocks from the Capitol, to bring their services to the homeless population. I went around, collected business cards, and heard the same thing over and over: The bedrock problem of homelessness, not surprisingly, is a lack of affordable housing. It's hard to connect help with people who don't know from day to day where they're going to sleep.

Beyond that, there's no simple answer to the question my friends were asking: "What's going on?" A lot. Not enough. Not nearly enough.


Join the conversation

Over the next few months, Indy staff writer Bob Geary will be tracking down the people he met at the Moore Square homelessness fair and anyone else with insight into how to end homelessness in the next five years.

A lot of this work will appear on this Web site. It starts this week with profiles of Joe, Dan and Gary—their stories and questions. The hope is that everyone with an interest in this subject, and information to share, will post comments on the Web site or contact the Indy (reach Geary at rjgeary@mac.com).

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