Featured photo: The Pallet community in Greensboro (photo by Gale Melcher)

Editor’s note: TCB takes anonymity for sources seriously and grants the right to those we believe could be harmed through being named. In this story, TCB grants anonymity to two residents who lived at the Pallet community who feared that being named could result in retaliation and loss of resources in the future.

“What’s the plan for the Pallet homes?” Greensboro Council Member Zack Matheny asked during an Aug. 2 council meeting.

At the end of last year, the city of Greensboro unveiled its Pallet community — 30 units of temporary pop-up housing — meant to shelter members of the unhoused population during the coldest months of the year. Prior to the installation of the units, community members were open to the idea after council members voted to pay an estimated $535,014 to house approximately 60 residents.

Each shelter claimed to be big enough for two people, with the max population of the community estimated to be around 58 individuals. (The 30th shelter was used as an office and cell-phone charging station).

The interior of a Pallet shelter from the Pallet website

The Doorway Project, as the initiative was called, was installed on top of a ballpark at Pomona Field, and the first residents moved in on Dec. 23. But after a few weeks, TCB investigations found that many of the promised amenities at the Pallet community were missing, diminishing the quality of life for residents.

Now, the city is starting up conversations again to see how the Pallet community will be run for its second year.

“What’s our plan?” Matheny asked during the Aug. 2 meeting. “Surely we’re talking about it? Is it the same plan as the past?”

In an email to TCB on Aug. 17, Housing and Neighborhood Development Director Michelle Kennedy said that there are no anticipated changes to the program and that it will be run by the Interactive Resource Center again. Kennedy is the former director of the IRC, the same organization that ran the program last year. Headquartered at 407 E. Washington St, the IRC is a day center where unhoused people can connect with services.

However, Assistant City Manager Nasha McCray told TCB in a Sept. 5 interview, “We have not finalized that just yet.”

“We’ll have more details coming here shortly,” she said, adding that there will be a request for proposals and that council would need to approve the contract, just as it was last year.

McCray also said that the funding would be roughly the same, adding, “That will be determined in the operations when we put the [request for proposals] out.”

After following up with Kennedy on the apparent contradiction, Kennedy replied, “It will be an open [request for proposals]. Last year the IRC was the only applicant.” 

This year’s request for proposals opened on Sept. 15, and proposals are due by Oct. 2 at 5 p.m. Applicants can apply for eligible activities such as case management, supportive services and administration/oversight expenses. Attending a workshop hosted by the Housing and Neighborhood Development department on Sept. 25 at 2 p.m. is required in order to receive city funding. During the workshop, participants will learn about funding requirements and instructions on how to complete the request for proposals. Last year’s request for proposals was open for 10 days.

Kennedy wrote to TCB in August that they anticipate this year’s program will run from Nov. 1-March 1. In a March email to TCB, Kennedy wrote, “The structures are approved for a maximum period of usage of 180 days. This is a state level regulation, not a city regulation.” 

The shelters will be placed at the ballfield again this year.

In addition to the Pallet community, the IRC also ran another city-funded program called Safe Parking at the ballpark, giving unhoused participants with cars a secure parking lot where they could sleep. Safe Parking is now located at the IRC’s headquarters.

The Pallet homes community on March 10. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

How many people lived in the Pallet community?

After the program concluded earlier this year, TCB spoke to two individuals who lived in the Pallets. To protect their anonymity, TCB will be using the names John Smith and John Doe in lieu of their real names.

Doe said he heard about the Doorway Project through the IRC.

Initially, the Pallet program was sold as a “stepping stone” to get people off the streets and into permanent housing. While they were living in the pop-up shelters, there were meant to be wrap-around services that would help the residents find permanent homes by the time the shelters came down in the spring. Last year the program ran from Dec. 23, 2022-March 24,2023 — around 90 days — due to the ballfield’s limited availability. 

But due to the short time period in which the Pallet shelters were up and running, Smith said that “a lot of people there generally didn’t use [the program] as a stepping stone, they just used it as shelter.”

When TCB interviewed the former residents in April, Doe was living with friends “here and there” and Smith was at a local shelter.

While there were enough Pallets to house 58 people — two residents in each shelter — Smith told TCB that there weren’t enough people to fill the amount of Pallets that were available, adding that hardly any new residents moved in after the first week of March.

“If you’re homeless, a week of shelter is amazing,” he noted. Doe also said that there were “a couple Pallets that were empty.”

When TCB asked IRC Director Kristina Singleton how many people were brought into the program after March 1, she replied that the “total number of individuals served in the Doorway Program was 75.” 

According to the Housing and Neighborhood Development department’s annual report, Doorway “maintained an occupancy rate of 92 percent for the majority of the winter.”

“Eighty percent of the guests that we served were able to move into some other type of shelter or housing by the end of the program, which we consider to be a great success,” Singleton wrote in a recent email to TCB. 

Issues with discipline, food access

As the project lead, the IRC provided staff and security onsite at the Pallet community. According to Smith, discipline from IRC staff members was inconsistent.

They would “kick one person out for doing something, but not somebody else,” Smith told TCB. Smith said that more than 10 people were kicked out of the program. In mid-February, Singleton told TCB that 18 people had “exited the program for a variety of reasons,” adding that the program’s participant agreement requires “no alcohol or illegal substance [to] be used or consumed on property” and that “creating an unsafe environment” for other participants will result in a exit from the program.

Another issue that residents brought up was the lack of ample access to transportation and resources. Because the ballpark was five miles away from downtown where the IRC is located, residents like Smith and Doe said that they relied heavily on using the bus to get their basic needs. 

According to Singleton, residents were given “six bus passes per day allowing guests transportation to any of the food resources of their choice.”

But Smith and Doe, along with other residents who TCB spoke to said that they only received four passes per day — enough to make two round-trip rides.

Pallet shelter community (photo by Gale Melcher)

Residents were also required to acquire their own food and Smith said that because there wasn’t a way to keep food refrigerated, residents were limited in the kinds of food they could eat onsite.

At one point, residents were able to use a microwave stored in the ballpark office during Safe Parking hours between 5-9 p.m. But the microwave eventually got taken away. Singleton explained that the microwave, which was housed in the charging station Pallet, “was not approved during inspections and was removed.”

“It was very difficult to feed yourself out there when there’s no microwave,” Smith said, adding that residents did “start to suffer” after the microwave was taken away. Smith threw out a lot of food, he said, adding, “It made it more of a struggle… your quality of life definitely went down then.”

Additionally, Smith said that one of the Doorway Project workers was frequently rude and curt toward him and the other residents. 

“You have to be stern sometimes, and that’s fair enough, but you can have compassion for people,” Smith said, continuing, “You can treat people like human beings other than pieces of crap. And that was basically what he did.” 

On the other hand, a different worker was especially compassionate and helpful, Smith noted. He said that she made food for everyone at the ballpark one time, but it was thrown out.

Singleton explained that the food was “left outside with a temperature that was higher than 50 degrees for over eight hours before IRC staff was informed.”

“The safety and well-being of our guests always comes first, and we will not allow food that has not been properly stored to be served to our guests,” she continued.

Singleton added that they are “limited” in what they can “safely offer by standards of funding” and ask that any food donations go through their volunteer coordinator so they can confirm packaging and address any food safety concerns. 

Singleton wrote that while some of their programs include food delivery based on mobility issues and access, the Doorway Project was “geared more towards folks that had access to food programs, employment, self-sufficiency,” adding that there are “different levels of homelessness” and each program was geared toward the “specific needs of [their] guests.” 

Despite issues, ‘it was still community’

Reflecting back on his experience, Doe said he felt there should have been more resources for residents at the Pallet shelters. 

“I get pissed so easily, not over petty stuff, but stuff that they should have for the people,” he said. “Like, you’re over here [and] got funding for this stuff, but yet you’re playing these people.” 

One of the other issues uncovered by TCB was the issue of running showers. Originally, the community was set to have pop-up showers by the time residents moved in, but in mid-January, TCB found that showers had been installed but were not operational. Once installed, residents could use the showers Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. according to Singleton and Smith. Other times, the shower wouldn’t work because the wastewater hadn’t been emptied out, Smith said.

According to Smith, the Safe Parking residents weren’t able to use the pop-up showers at the Pallet community because they had to arrive between 6-9 p.m. for check-in and leave the lot by 7 a.m. the following morning. 

When TCB recently asked Singleton if Safe Parking participants were allowed to use the showers, Singleton responded that while the Safe Parking program ended at 7 a.m., the park was a public space “so people could remain if using park facilities.” 

Singleton added that the showers were not staffed during Safe Parking hours but were available in the morning as needed, and also at the IRC for anyone who needed them. Singleton noted that “more hours were added as needed as the resources became available.” 

The Pallet community in Greensboro (photo by Gale Melcher)

As the weeks went on and residents noticed inconsistencies in amenities, they started to speak up about the issues.

During a January interview with former Pallet resident Larry Chambers, an onsite IRC staff member interrupted the interview, telling Chambers: “If you have a complaint, this is not the person to talk to.”

When Chambers was asked about his contentment with the resources available, he responded: “They said we can’t talk about that. No comment on that.”

After TCB’s initial article on the project was released in January, TCB was told that media needed to make an appointment for future visits and be accompanied by an IRC staff member while conducting interviews. Smith said that they had to stop talking to security at the beginning of March.

When TCB asked Singleton if residents were told at any point that they were not allowed to talk to reporters or security, she responded that residents were “absolutely always allowed to speak to anyone.”

“We are the lowest-barrier resource provider in Guilford County, and believe that no one has a better voice to tell their story than the people we serve,” Singleton said.

As for security, Singleton said that they “followed direction from their company regarding media.” 

Looking back, Smith said he believed the program, while it had flaws, “did a lot of good.” He noted that “a lot of the people thought they were going to get more help,” but also stated that he didn’t think people were “encouraged the right way to try and help themselves as much as possible.”

Smith acknowledged that it can be hard for many unhoused people to get off the street because of mental health issues or lack of knowledge about programs.

“Overall, I think it was a good deal,” Smith said. “And to be honest it was kind of sad leaving there because even though it’s not home, it’s the longest place a lot of us have stayed.

“Even if you hated being there and surrounded by it, it was still community.”

Read previous reporting on the Pallet community here.

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