Featured photo: Winston-Salem’s unhoused residents and local activists sleep outside city hall to demand action from city leaders. (photo by Gale Melcher)

Last night, unhoused residents and activists slept on the cold concrete steps of Winston-Salem’s city hall. Under the watch of the magnolia trees, they shouted, “No shelter, no peace!” as cars drove past.

People arrived around 6 p.m. on Thursday. Throughout the night, more than 20 people came by to get food and supplies. The temperature had dipped to 46 degrees by 9:30 p.m. and kept plunging into the low 40s as the night went on. In the morning, people were denied access to city hall’s restroom, and told that they had to have an appointment in order to enter the building.

The idea was born from volunteers’ experiences at last month’s annual Point-In-Time count, Arnita Miles, an advocate for the unhoused, told TCB. Miles is also a veteran of the Winston-Salem Police Department and the US Army.

“It started out as a prayer vigil, turned to an empowerment of the homeless,” she said.

They’re “protesting for better rights” for the unhoused.

And why on the steps of city hall?

“Because that’s who controls the money,” Miles answered.

The city, along with Forsyth County, works closely with local nonprofit agencies, healthcare providers and other homeless service agencies as part of an entity known as the Continuum of Care. But there’s limited bed space at the local shelters, and Miles and other activists feel that there is a “misconnect” of getting the funds “directly to the people that need it.” 

One unhoused resident called Smiley has been on the street for eight years, and has lived in cities like Charlotte, High Point and Greensboro.

Those cities “do more for us homeless than Winston-Salem does,” he said.

Residents like Smiley wish that the city would “take a page out of [Greensboro’s] book.” Greensboro runs the Doorway Project during the cold months of the year, sheltering their unhoused residents in 64-square-foot pop-up Pallet shelters.

From abandoned buildings to sidewalks, Smiley said that “everywhere we go we get run off.”

People came to the steps of city hall throughout the night to sleep and get food and supplies. (photo by Gale Melcher)

“I ain’t homeless, I’m houseless. Because I can make home anywhere,” Joshua Boles told TCB on Thursday night. Boles said that while he’s educated, has a science degree and years of work experience as an independent contractor, he’s “still sitting here and can’t get a job.” He got in a car accident, couldn’t work for a while which led to him falling behind on child support payments. This resulted in the loss of his driver’s license. In North Carolina, if you owe more than three months of child support, the state can suspend your driver’s license until the debt is paid.

“How is a man supposed to go out and make money for his child when you take his license to be able to get there? That makes a lot of sense,” Boles said. “I went from doing well to nothing overnight.”

If city officials can’t help the homeless, “who’s going to do it?” Smiley asked.

Their next stop?

It could be outside the homes of the mayor and other city leaders. 

“We’re not giving up: If we have to go to these people’s houses, come here and protest this every day,” Smiley said.

“They will say something when we show up on their front yards,” Miles said.

Many of those who protested on Thursday evening say they are supporting mayoral candidate JoAnne Allen, president of local activist group Action4Now and frequent speaker at city council meetings, in the upcoming election.

“If we can get [her] office, I know she’ll do something for us,” Smiley said, 

Activist Lisa Uber said that she’s also supporting Allen, “100 percent.”

“We’ve got a voice out here. We’re human beings,” Smiley said.

“Even though we don’t live in nice houses or drive nice cars, we are human.”

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