Commentary: Homelessness in Durham: Why it persists and how the city is fighting it

Editor’s Note: Staff writer Caitlin Ball was one of the photographers participating in the Oct. 10 Project Homeless Connect Durham event in which VOICE photographers made portraits for 55 people attending the support event at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. After spending the better part of the day meeting, talking to and photographing many Durham residents who wanted to improve their situation, reporter/photographer Ball elected to delve deeper into the roots of homelessness and to ask what Durham is doing to combat those causes. Here is her report, along with several of the portraits she made of her new friends.

Zandrena Winn. (Staff photo by Caitlin Ball)

Zandvena Winn, photographed at Durham Project Homeless Connect on Oct. 10. Winn is from Jersey City and has lived in the Durham area for almost 20 years. (Staff photo by Caitlin Ball)

In January of 2014, there were 758 homeless men, women and children in Durham, according to a count done by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. Of those 758, 238 had a substance use disorder, 130 were veterans, 108 were children and 24 were victims of domestic violence.

In response, Durham has a number of organizations working to provide emergency shelter and transitional housing for residents without a home, as well as supplying other needs like food, employment assistance and veteran services.

There are organizations like Housing for New Hope, Urban Ministries of Durham, the Durham Rescue Mission, Oxford House, Genesis Home and several others that focus on supplying these needs, and their services have changed lives. (The VOICE recently published articles on Housing for New Hope, Oxford House and Genesis Home, which you can find in this addition.)

But despite significant community effort, according to NCCEH’s data, 13 percent of those homeless adults are still chronically homeless—either they have a disability and have been homeless for at least a year or have had four episodes of homelessness in three years.

More than temporary shelter, it is the variables that create chronic homelessness that the city is struggling to cope with.

Once off of the street or out of a shelter, how does a resident stay clean, stay healthy and stay in a home?


A strong undertow

During Durham’s Project Homeless Connect on Oct. 10, staff members of the VOICE were able to talk to many guests of the event while taking their photos. We got a chance to hear a little bit more of their stories and in turn gain more understanding about what leads to chronic homelessness.

Yvette Jones. (Staff photo by Caitlin Ball)

Yvette Jones was addicted to crack cocaine but had been clean for over 90 days when she spoke with us in October. Jones attributes her family as her biggest support system. “We have a beautiful relationship,” she said. (Staff photo by Caitlin Ball)

Many of the people we talked to said they had struggled with substance abuse for several years, and although they had bouts of being clean or sober, many times they returned to old coping mechanisms because of tragedy or crisis.

Zandvena Winn, 43, from New Jersey, was staying in the Recovery Center of Durham when we talked with her. Winn had been in the home for one week, trying to break her addiction to drugs and alcohol.

“I stayed clean for two-and-a-half years…My son died, and I went back to alcohol,” Winn said.

We also spoke with Yvette Jones, 45, who has been battling a crack cocaine addiction for several years and is staying in the Freedom House in Durham. She was clean for six months at one point, but “went back to old places, old playgrounds, people who were addicts.”

“I stopped doing what worked for me,” she said.

Louis Bright’s story was similar to Winn and Jones’, but he unveiled an important theme in the general condition of homelessness: without hope, you can’t move forward.

Bright is a Durham native whose father “died of drink” and whose mother “did all she could for the rest of us.” Bright began drinking when he was 14.

“I suffered from low self-esteem,” Bright said. “I drink to change the way I feel.”

Bright has been sober for up to three or four years at a time—he was 35-days sober when we spoke to him—but oftentimes during these periods, he still didn’t feel satisfied.

“I get to a point in my life where I get everything back—the house back, the car back, the family’s alright—and I feel like I can drink again,” he said. “I drink cause I don’t want to feel nothing. I didn’t want to face reality. I had no hope and I felt like drinking was the only way out.”

At the time of the interview, Bright was in a 45-day shelter, with 10 days left in his stay. He hoped to transition to a halfway house, but had to speak with its director first.


Tragedy overcome

There are certainly stories of triumph as well amid this difficult backdrop of addiction and homelessness. Stories like Leon Summers’: Summers said he was a “full-blown addict…popping pills, smoking marijuana, drinking.”

He moved to Durham from Connecticut in 1987 to take care of his aging mother, and when she passed away two years ago, his life turned around completely.

“When my mom passed away I decided to clean my life up,” Summers said.

He has been clean for more than a year now and works at a mental health institution in Butner, sharing his story with the Alcoholics Anonymous group there.

Louis Bright. (Staff photo by Caitlin Ball)

Louis Bright is a Durham native and recovering alcoholic. Bright was sober for years at a time but would turn back to drinking when he felt like he had no hope. He was 35-days sober on the day of Project Homeless Connect. (Staff photo by Caitlin Ball)

Although Winn, Jones and Bright aren’t as far along in their recovery, even in their stories there is victory—each of them had been sober for at least a week when they shared their life stories with us, all of them had goals they aspired to and more than that, the conviction that they were going to stay clean and endure.

“Third time is a charm,” Jones said—this is her third stay in the Freedom House. “I never gave up. I just keep fighting.”


Finding an answer

It is obvious that no one has perfect solutions to these problems—addiction, joblessness and unstable residency create a cyclical storm—but there are programs in place in Durham that have worked well for many residents.

Lloyd Schmeidler, a project manager for Durham’s Opening Doors Homeless Prevention & Services, spoke highly of Durham’s initiative to create more permanent supportive housing. Permanent supportive housing is transitional housing that provides on-going support services as well as stable housing.

Durham’s estimated need for permanent supportive housing has almost halved in the last several years, with an estimated need of 132 beds for single adults in 2007 and a need of only 72 this year.

“We’re proud of the success we’ve had in the last four years of expanding the supply of permanent supportive housing,” Schmeidler said. “It’s not where it needs to be, but it’s progressing.”

The city has also recently adopted a measuring tool that will help local organizations working with the homeless to consolidate their data. The instrument is called the Vulnerability Index—Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, VI-SPDAT for short, and it looks specifically at people’s vulnerability to succumb to health crises as well as how long they’ve been homeless.

Using VI-SPDAT’s data, the city prioritizes the people with the greatest vulnerability in these areas and works on providing permanent housing for them first, Schmeidler said.

The VI-SPDAT and the augmentation of permanent supportive housing are both a part of a larger city initiative to battle the cycle of chronic homelessness.

“We’re pleased with efforts to prioritize our long-term homeless people,” Schmeidler said.

Unfortunately, adequate supportive services don’t ensure a changed life. But there is no question that without these services little change can be accomplished.

Schmeidler summarizes: “It is complex. Every homeless individual has their own story and their own needs.”