From haircuts to new IDs, Bull City Fresh Start brings resources to Durham’s homeless

Barber Alex Puente gives Tommy Lee Harris a shave. Afterwards, Harris said, “I feel awesome.” (Staff photo by Zayrha Rodriguez)

Aleem El-Amin has not had a permanent home in 10 years. He lives under a bridge.

Aleem El-Amin was born in New York, but has called Durham home since he can remember. He was born to Islam, but he does not affiliate with any specific religion. “I watch and pray; that is that I do,” said El-Amin.
(Staff photo by Zayrha Rodriguez)

El-Amin, like many other homeless people in the city of Durham, had the opportunity to access resources during Project Homeless Connect Jan. 25 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The Project Homeless Connect is the last phase of the second-annual Bull City Fresh Start, a three-phase event created to address homelessness in the city.

“This event is just really trying to get those people that are really on the street, and figure out what would it take to put the pieces together to give them some kind of housing,” said Charita McCollers, vice-chairwoman at the Homeless Services Advisory Committee.

Project Homeless Connect follows the Point-In-Time Count, a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January and the second phase of BCSF.

“It wasn’t until last year that we actually decided to hone in on the literally homeless,” McCollers said. “In the years prior, we would get people that are in shelters, they are not necessarily outside. They are homeless, but they are not outside.”

The most popular services were the DMV and the district Attorney’s Office, said Lloyd Schmeidler, project manager for the city of Durham’s Community Development Department.

“What I liked the most was the dental visit,” said El-Amin. “Because things weren’t as bad as I thought.”

Other services offered included foot care, haircuts, massage, make-over photos, STI and HIV testing, blood glucose, blood pressure checks, eye exams, behavioral and mental health screenings, free cellphones, breakfast, lunch, voter registration and housing assessments.

“To be able to come in and get a haircut,” McCollers said. “To take a before and after picture, to get an ID they might not have had in years … to talk to somebody that might put them in a path to housing … to be able to establish medical care – those are big things.”

All the participants received a free bus pass, a hygiene kit and an EMPWR coat. The coats are water resistant and transform into sleeping bags and over-the-shoulder bags.

Allen Griffin receives an EMPWR coat from police Sgt. Tad Ochman. The EMPWR coats are from The Empowerment Plan, a non-profit organization from Detroit looking to end generational homelessness. (Staff photo by Zayrha Rodriguez )



The first phase of the Bull City Fresh Start is canvassing, that took place during the first weeks of January. It focused on identifying the homeless population, making it easier to find people during the second phase, the PIT Count, according to McCollers.

“Mohawk is my favorite,” Tanya Dudely said. “Because it fits my face.” (Staff photo by Zayrha Rodriguez)

This year the PIT Count took place Jan. 24 from 8 p.m. to midnight. More than 80 volunteers met at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and were divided into 17 groups. Each group had a list of addresses where possible homeless people were staying. The addresses encompassed all five districts of the city.

Each team received five bus passes and hygiene bags. The groups were free to allocate these items to the homeless as they saw fit throughout the night.

If a group found a homeless person or a campsite, then one of the members had to do a survey to keep a record. The survey could be an interview with the homeless person or just an observation of the campsite.

“I am surprised and shocked with the amount of mental health challenges they face, with the three people we have encountered,” said Jessica Mentzer, a nursing student at Duke University, who volunteered in the PIT Count event.

The PIT Count is a national event that takes place in the last 10 days of January. It is required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to secure Continuum of Cares Program funds. The funds from the program allow the government to help end homelessness.

After the Project Homeless Connect event, El-Amin said, “I feel refreshed, rejuvenated and encouraged.”

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