The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

January 28, 2013

Harsh weather hard on homeless

The Daily Southerner
MIRANDA BAINES

TARBORO — The cold weather this week has driven homeless people normally on the streets to seek shelter.

“Once our capacity of 26 beds is filled, we can’t take any more. All our beds are filled,” said Sister Mary Ann Czaja, director of the Tarboro Community Outreach Center. To her, homelessness is not just a cold weather issue.

“I’m sympathetic all the time,” she said. The shelter on Cedar Lane offers homeless men a place to go for shelter and food. The outreach center also has a small shelter for women and children called “The Blessing Place,” which is at capacity with five people.

Sarah Turner, a social work student at East Carolina University who is working with Czaja, said she thinks shelters like the outreach center fill a service void.

“There’s not enough [housing assistance] for men. When you look at single men and those with mental health issues, there’s really not enough,” she said. “If you’re a woman and you have children, you can find shelter quickly.”

The homeless population in Edgecombe County will be officially counted in a “Point-in-Time” count on Wednesday, Jan. 30. In 2012, 165 people, or 0.29 percent of the population of Edgecombe County, were counted as homeless, the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness reported. That percentage was up from 0.26 percent in 2011.

“One of the needs right now is having a place for the mentally ill to go,” Czaja said. “The mentally ill who are temporarily misplaced have a very hard time getting their medicines.”

Ex-convicts getting out of jail or prison also come to the outreach center looking for a place to stay.

“There’s not a day that goes by that people aren’t calling from institutions asking for housing,” Czaja said. Homeless veterans are another population that Czaja serves at the center.

George Stokes, 67, a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran, is a current resident at the outreach center. Stokes was out of a home after someone bought the property he was renting.

“It was my first time being completely out. When you’re cut off like that, you get uneasy,” he said. “I decided to just stay down here [at the center] while I was looking for a house. It helped me kinda settle down because when I came down here, I was nervous about how to survive.”

Staying at the center has meant Stokes does not have to spend all night out on the streets looking for housing, knocking on neighbors’ doors, and spending his last couple of dollars on food.

“It gives you a place to lay your head down,” Stokes said. “For someone to be generous and give you someplace to stay for your situation when you can’t help your situation.”

Stokes has found housing and plans to leave the center in the next week or so.

Johnny Pettaway, 51, recalled his time of homelessness, when it seems like “nobody cares about you.” Pettaway was out on the streets, taking baths at the outdoor facility at the jail downtown, until he came to the outreach center.

“I stayed here for about two years, but I got my own place now,” Pettaway said. “It blessed me.”

Pettaway came to the center after being laid off from his job. While at the center, he said Czaja helped him filled out job applications and put him on the right path.

“Come in and do what you have to do here and move on further with your life,” he said.

“I really believe we do a lot to move people into a different mindset,” Czaja said. “”We’re really trying to keep things personal and respectful. We’re trying to help the in their journey of going somewhere, not just getting caught in the system.”

Pettaway sees a great need for the shelter in Tarboro, and says he sometimes has people knock on his door in the middle of the night asking for a place to stay.

“Tarboro and Edgecombe County’s full of homeless folks,” Pettaway said. “People are still out here with nowhere to go in this cold weather.”

When the weather gets cold, Sheriff James Knight said he instructs his officers to be “more vigilant” about noticing people out and about late at night, who might not have anywhere to stay, and try to find them a refuge such as a homeless shelter.

Another ministry that serves the homeless population in Edgecombe County is United Community Ministries (UCM).

“Once you enter our program, you’re not allowed to wander the streets anymore. It’s a program set up to make responsible citizens so you do not become homeless again,” said UCM board member Melissa Barker. She added that the ministry offers financial and spiritual counseling to homeless individuals, as well as help obtaining a GED.

UCM has a shelter for homeless single adults on McDonald Street in Rocky Mount. UCM also has a shelter for families with children at risk for homelessness, the Bassett Center, at 916 Branch St. in Rocky Mount. Additionally, UCM has a permanent housing program to help transition residents of shelters to independent living.