Featured photo: L-R: Sisco King, Ray Gentry, Danny Dailey sit together (photo by JP Powell)
Editor’s note: Interviews with individuals in this story took place in October 2022.
Ground level, without a place to go
The conversation begins with a notable omission of “good.” The temperature hovers at about 50 degrees and Tara Roberson is starting the day with all the insulation and warmth a frayed moving blanket can provide.
“I’ve been out here for about eight months,” Roberson says.
If she had the ability to charge a phone she would know the sun wouldn’t begin to warm her for many hours, that the week ahead would bring dropping temperatures at night.
She checks her appearance in the reflection of an abandoned restaurant window, cars passing by in the background, and decides against allowing a photo.
Roberson is one of roughly 500 to 700 individuals without a home at any given time in Forsyth County, which is roughly what it was pre-pandemic, according to Andrea Kurtz, executive director of strategic housing initiatives at United Way. Prior to the pandemic, most of the unhoused found temporary sanctuary in one of the eight shelters throughout the city. As of Jan. 23 there are 468 homeless individuals — 301 sheltered, 167 unsheltered — per Jessica Lunnemann, director of Community Intake Center.
Roberson recollects that she was kicked out of her home due to mutual infidelity in her relationship and that her 3-year-old child still lives in the home in Mt. Airy.
“I just want to go home and tell him I’m sorry,” she says.
For many like Roberson, navigating life without a home is a maze of complicated municipal resources, local nonprofits and welcoming churches. One such organization is City With Dwellings, a nonprofit that supports the homeless community in Winston-Salem.
“City with Dwellings has helped me out with using computers trying to keep in contact with everybody,” Roberson says as she wipes sidewalk pebbles off her sweater sleeve. Her main goal is to find help getting out of town to be with her dad. She only has to make it to him, which happens to be over a thousand miles away in Mexico.
“A lot of folks are relying on their personal network of friends and family to take them in,” Kurtz explains.
However, when people move back in with their family, Kurtz says sometimes there needs to be mediation as there isn’t clarity of roles in a new mixed household. Currently there aren’t enough mediators in the city and the Winston-Salem Continuum of Care is working to try to increase their numbers.
Furthermore, landlords aren’t often amenable to overcrowding or having people not on the lease living in the home for indeterminate amounts of time. This can push people to live in hotels which are more expensive and use resources faster as reported previously by Triad City Beat.
Shelters and housing first
Five blocks away, Ray Gentry is waking up on a concrete bench near the bus station and, although he has family nearby, he feels alone.
“I ain’t got nowhere to go, my back against the wall, I’m not gonna lay up on my daughters or my children,” he said.
Gentry speaks in a kindhearted tone, telling the group around him about his two daughters and six granddaughters. He grins when he says his granddaughters love their Paw Paw. He admits he’s made both good and bad choices throughout his life.
Without a stable place to stay he says he can’t work if he can’t sleep. Like others experiencing homelessness, Gentry is someone whom the safety net has failed to catch.
Since 2006, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County has adopted a housing-first approach, at least on paper, through its Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness and again in 2018 with its Strategic Plan to End Homelessness. These two plans form an overarching framework within Forsyth County, meant to guide the initiatives that help when people find themselves in a housing crisis.
“Housing first” is noted by many advocates to be a more effective approach to helping people experiencing homelenessness. Andrea Kurtz notes that research shows whether a person has substance use, mental health, or financial problems, anything that is done for a person is more cost effective when services are delivered to someone who is housed when compared to someone who is homeless.
Gentry puts on a balaclava and his voice softens as he reminisces.
“I slept out here last night, and this lady saw me shivering and she came out here and brought me a blanket and a pillow,” he says. “You know what that means to me?”
“We’re sleeping out here on concrete,” said Danny Dailey, who had been homeless for a year back in October. “We’re out here; we’re people too.”
Dailey knows intimately the difficult process of finding housing. He told TCB that he moved here from Wilmington for a change.
“I’ve done everything I need to do to get housing and right now I’m on a waiting list,” he said. “Talking about housing, but wintertime [is] about to come up. I’m tired of this concrete. If I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do, meet all your criteria, why can’t I get housing?”
The process for Dailey to get off the street begins like any governmental process: by finding a specific person at a precise location to fill out a form with a complex acronym title. In this case it is the five-page VI-SPDAT form. The “Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool” turns a person into a number among a prioritized list for housing. It asks personal questions that often don’t get answered until someone has been in a shelter or been followed by an outreach member for a few weeks so rapport can be built. This includes topics such as substance use, sexual assault, suicide, encounters with law enforcement, being assaulted and health conditions.
Instead, City with Dwellings takes a trauma-informed approach.
“They ask all of the same questions; to me it’s dredging that up again,” says Lea Thullberry, director of diversion and outreach for City with Dwellings. Their approach recognizes that people have traumatic events in their life and that those events affect their behaviors and responses. This understanding helps prevent from kicking someone while they are down, by assuming, more often than not, that a person has a history of trauma. The continuum of care is in the process of training more individuals to implement this trauma informed approach.
Lack of affordable housing, evictions
While the lack of shelter space is an issue for those needing roofs over their heads, so much of houselessness can be attributed to the lack of affordable housing.
“Some of it is our shelter capacity has changed over the course of the pandemic and we’re just not able to meet people’s need for emergency shelter in the way that we had before the pandemic,” Kurtz said. “But the other thing that we’re seeing is because of the housing, how tight the housing market is, we’re just not able to find housing.”
Evictions have been noted as being a primary cause for anywhere from 14-33 percent of homelessness, and roughly half of those living in shelters have been evicted in the prior five years, according to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
Kurtz notes if an eviction is done correctly it can take a couple months, involving notice served in a variety of ways, potential court appearances and legal representation or appeals. However, volunteers with Housing Justice Now say that illegal evictions are on the rise and can range from changing the locks to residents potentially being strong-armed out of their homes, often in hotels. Though eviction data is public record (civil, not criminal), a request for evictions filed in Forsyth County was not received as of press time. Virginia as a comparison has had 3,031 evictions filed in the last reported week ending Jan. 1, compared to 489 in 2022 and 191 in 2021 with data from Eviction Lab.
Dan Rose, a volunteer with Housing Justice Now, notes the difficulty of tracking illegal evictions is because there is no formalized paperwork, and often those who are illegally evicted do not have the resources to put up a challenge. Even if they did make it to court, less than 10 percent of individuals who are evicted are able to have legal representation in Forsyth County according to Displaced in America. That’s compared to landlords who have more ready access to attorneys.
According to Thullbery, there was a lot of confusion around rent freezes during the pandemic.
Initially, the federal government enacted a national freeze on evictions. Then, when the order expired, it was up to individual states to continue freezes. In North Carolina, an order by former NC Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley put a halt on evictions through June 2020. Then, in Sept. 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made the unprecedented move of temporarily halting evictions from Sept 2020 through Dec 31, 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19. This was later extended separately by congress and President Biden, however, those who wanted to use the CDC eviction moratorium were required to fill out confusing paperwork that still left some people without housing. Others believed they wouldn’t have to pay rent during the moratoriums resulting in an uptick in evictions after the moratorium was lifted.
“People didn’t do well with that, and now they’re just being evicted, evicted, evicted,” Thullbery says.
Ray Gentry sits on the wall by the bus station as he asks a passing friend for his cigarette lighter. Gentry, who was evicted two weeks prior, is all too familiar with a negative roommate situation.
Gentry says he didn’t know his roommate was taking his money because he was working 11 hours a day.
“[H]e wouldn’t pay his part of the bill, but I would give him my money,” Gentry explained.
Later on, Gentry found out his roommate used his portion of the rent to purchase drugs, which he holds in great disdain.
“At my age I can’t afford to [use drugs],” he said, “cause the wrong batch of ice will kill me, the wrong batch of meth will kill me.”
His explanation did not hold sway with the property owner.
“The landlord showed up and told me to kick rocks,” he says.
Build something for us too
A communal sandwich is passed between the small gathering of friends.
“The homeless do not do for themselves, they will give you the shirt off they back, because we don’t have nothing, but we will give you what we got,” Dailey said.
“I’m looking out for my boy,” adds Gentry as he continues to pass the sandwich down the line.
Gentry continues, “That’s my family right here, out here on the street, that’s my family all these, we eat together, sleep together.”
Dailey points to the surrounding high-rises while Gentry chews the sandwich.
“Same way you build these $1,500 condos, build something for us too,” he says.
Difficulty in finding affordable housing is not unique to Winston-Salem. According to the housing dashboard presented to Winston-Salem City Council in August 2022, there were 215 affordable units approved for building with an additional 91 affordable units approved by the end of the year, aiming for an annual goal of 750.
Dan Rose from Housing Justice Now says the approvals are just a “drop in the bucket” in terms of needs. According to a 2018 study, Winston-Salem/Forsyth county lacked 16,244 affordable lower-income housing units.
Kurtz said that “many of the apartment complexes are turning over, because they’re being used as investment properties.”
She explains how out-of-town investors extract rent from residents, then resell properties up to three or four times in a year. Sometimes the new owners no longer take vouchers, and established long-term stable people who use them become stripped of their ability to stay.
On Sept. 19 2022, the sale of city-owned lots in the Happy Hills neighborhood to the Arts Based School was postponed after pushback from the community. Ultimately the school withdrew their request after the community expressed desire for affordable housing to be built on those lots.
About a month earlier, city council members debated whether or not to fund yet another housing study for the city.
During an Aug. 8 council meeting, Councilmember Robert Clark posed the question: “How many housing studies does it take to build an apartment?”
Gentry chimes in as he finishes his bite of the egg sandwich. He shares Councilmember Clark’s sentiments of the juxtaposition of words and actions when it comes to a lack of affordable housing being built.
“That’s not what they’re doing, they’re just talking,” he said in a frustrated tone.
Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.
We believe that reporting can save the world.
The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.
All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.