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

Read all of our reporting on the Pallet shelters here.

Kelly Smith has been unhoused for about a year. 

“I was doing great; I had my own apartment,” she said. “I was actually receiving Social Security benefits and for whatever reason they sent me a letter and said that they found me no longer disabled.

“I have high blood pressure, COPD [and] emphysema,” she added.

Smith now resides in a Pallet shelter, one of 30 units assembled on Pomona Field at Billie Nall Park in Greensboro. 

She described her typical day before moving in.

“Waking up in a freezing-cold car, looking for food… looking for a bathroom to wash… your most basic needs,” she said. “Just trying to find your everyday basic necessities is a struggle.”

The Pallet shelters are equipped with heating, which Smith said she feels blessed to have. “And a somewhat cushy place to lay my head,” she said.

Kelly Smith, a Pallet community resident (photo by Gale Melcher)

During a special meeting held on Oct. 10, members of Greensboro City Council voted to pay for temporary pop-up housing and a Safe Parking lot for unhoused residents through the winter season. 

Council members approved the programs and authorized the purchase of the Pallet shelters in a 7-1 vote, with District 3 council member Zack Matheny as the only member opposed. Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson was absent. Owned by the city, these units could also be deployed in case of disaster or if the need for temporary shelter arises. The purchase of the units was estimated at $535,014.

The Pallet houses and the city’s Safe Parking initiative are both currently installed at Pomona Park and operated by the Interactive Resource Center; the city’s sole day center for those who are unhoused.

Although a request for proposals was put out on Oct. 14 of last year, the IRC was the only organization that applied to head the programs.

“We only got one application,” Matheny said during a Nov. 15 council meeting to approve the  contracts. “I find that shocking when we have so many people that [do] outreach and social work…. I’m struggling with that. I think part of it is because of the 10-day time period.”

The resolution to approve the contract was passed by the city council in a 4-3 vote. Mayor Vaughan and Goldie Wells did not vote.

Funding allocated to the IRC for the Safe Parking Initiative is $184,000 while the Doorway Project’s funding is $200,000. $85,000 of the funds allocated to the IRC for the Doorway Project was designated for case management, and an IRC staff member is usually available onsite to assist residents in the Pallet community from 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Of the $184,000 awarded to the IRC for the Safe Parking Initiative, $100,000 is dedicated to security services while $84,000 is intended for case management. Cost of security for the Doorway Project is also estimated at $100,000.

During the meeting, Matheny asked for clarification on what this money would actually go toward. Michelle Kennedy, the city’s head of neighborhood development, broke down the cost.

“It covers hiring of new staff, food, bus passes, and security costs,” she said.

Kennedy formerly served as an at-large city council member and as the executive director for the IRC until she stepped down from both positions to take on the new city role in August 2021.

$15,000 of the funds allocated to the IRC for the Doorway Project go toward bus passes for residents, who receive four bus passes per day according to Kristina Singleton, IRC executive director. There is a bus stop across the street from the ballpark where the Pallet shelters are set up.

Those who would like to participate in the program can apply through a referral process, Singleton said. 

“You have an agreement,” she said. “To be referred, you have to do a full intake process, and that determines if you’re a good fit. Once you’re accepted into the program… there are guidelines that you have to adhere to and sign off on before moving in.”

The agenda report for the Nov. 15 meeting also stated that “coordination with the [Guilford County Continuum of Care] is ongoing to allow for a streamlined referral process for City of Greensboro homeless service providers.”

How do residents feel about the program?

James Martin has been unhoused since April 2022. 

He told TCB that he’s been homeless because of long-term health issues including a leg amputation and a much-needed hip replacement.

“For the past three years I’ve been unable to work a full time job; it’s just too much pain,” he said. “If I work for three days in a row, I’m down for three, hurting so bad I couldn’t do nothing but lay there.

“It sure is a lot better than where I was,” Martin added, “If they fed you here, that would be off the chain.”

There is no kitchen onsite so residents must bring their own food. A microwave and water kettle are available to use between 5-9 p.m. when the ballpark’s office is open.

Resident Larry Chambers had been unhoused for about a month before moving into the Pallet community.

“I had an apartment and everything, and I got injured at work so I couldn’t work,” Chambers said. He likes that the community is quiet. “It’s cool.”

An onsite IRC staff member interrupted TCB’s interview to speak with Chambers, telling him: “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.”

The Pallet community in Greensboro (photo by Gale Melcher)

Both Martin and Chambers are currently living in the community of 32 residents. Some of the shelters are designated for use as Americans with Disabilities Act compliant Pallet shelters which can house one person. The rest of the units are capable of housing two people each, so the total population that can be accommodated is a little under 60. The first resident moved into a Pallet shelter on Dec. 23, according to Singleton. 

In an interview, she said more tenants are on their way. 

“Sometimes it takes a minute to be able to get your client prepared to move in,” she said. ”As of tomorrow, the spaces that are not filled will be filled next week.”

Resident Mike Smith said that he found out about the Pallet shelters after reading a news article when city council first approved them. 

Smith said the Pallet shelters, which measure eight feet by eight feet each, remind him a bit of LEGO houses.

“They’re put together well,” Smith said, and mentioned the storage capacity the shelters have. “We have a shelf at the back above our heater.”

“Brand new linen, I was tickled pink about that,” Martin added.

A dirt road is all that lies between train tracks and the fence surrounding the baseball park. An onsite IRC staff member acknowledged the noise from passing trains but suggested that the residents wouldn’t be bothered.

“You know what, here’s the thing: These people — I’m not trying to be rude — but our homeless community, our friends…they’re part of our community but they sleep outside,” they said. “I can guarantee you it’s probably not a thing to them, they’re used to hearing it.”

Curfew is 11 p.m. for Pallet residents. The gate is never closed and security is always onsite.

Judy Le, a Safe Parking resident (photo by Gale Melcher)

Singleton told TCB that the safe parking lot which is located next to the baseball field and opened Dec. 23, has a check-in period from 6-9 p.m. People can show up after 9 p.m. but onsite security have to contact IRC staff to do an intake with that person before they can spend the night.. 

Judy Le hugged her dog Cocoa while chatting about her experience in the Safe Parking program. Le has been unhoused for a few weeks.

“Hands down, I feel like this is the best one for me,” she said. “I don’t really like being around a lot of people. Being in the safe parking [lot], I can really just be by myself with my dog and not have to worry about nobody bothering me or looking at me crazy if I’m sleeping in a car.”

She said she feels safe and would recommend the lot to anyone else in a similar situation.

Plus, she gets to stay with her best friend.

Le said that Cocoa just turned one year old on Nov. 30.

“He’s my baby,” she said. “They let me bring my dog, that’s even better.”

Not exactly what was promised

While the agenda report for the Oct. 10 meeting mentioned that “daily food would also be provided to residents of the temporary shelters,” food is not provided onsite. IRC staff member Angela Parker mentioned that the Greensboro Urban Ministries on S. Elm-Eugene St. offers three meals a day and that residents can go downtown to grab some food at the IRC as well, suggesting that residents could use their bus passes to “get on the bus, go downtown, get their food, get their showers, get their case management and come back.” 

She continued: “Does it work like that every day? No. Do we have some clients… that sit here… every day? Probably.”

The agenda report from Oct. 10 also mentioned that portable bathrooms and showers would be provided onsite, however they are not yet up and running. Residents are currently using the baseball park’s two restroom facilities; the women’s restroom has three stalls while the men’s has two stalls plus two urinals.

There are no outlets within the village due to fire-safety concerns, even though they were pictured in the original Pallet photos. Currently, IRC staff members charge residents’ phones between the hours of 5-9 p.m. while they are onsite to conduct safe parking check-in.

A photo of the interior of a Pallet shelter from their website shows outlets but the Greensboro shelters do not have them for fire safety reasons.

Residents can also charge their phones outside of those hours using electrical outlets in the restrooms. Each restroom has two duplex outlets capable of charging four devices altogether.

Because the houses don’t come equipped with kitchens and the bathrooms aren’t up yet, Parker told TCB that residents can get drinking water from the tap in the ballpark restrooms. They can also use their bus passes to get to the IRC which has showers and laundry facilities. The IRC is closed on Saturdays and Sundays.

“There are issues that need to be worked on, but I am blessed,” resident Kelly Smith said about the Pallet program. “If you’re trying to get out of the elements, you do have a shelter; a sturdy, stable shelter, a place to lay, warmth. But just know that it comes with a price, because you still are struggling daily with the basic necessities: food, drink, hygiene.”

According to the city’s website, the Pallet shelters will be disassembled in mid-March following the winter season.

As for the current residents, Singleton said they’re “hoping that this will move people quicker than if they were living in a tent, being at the Doorway Project.” 

Pushback on Pallet shelters

The Pallet shelters have been met with their fair share of critics from other organizations. 

In an interview with TCB, Del Stone with the Working-Class and Houseless Organizing Alliance in Greensboro called the shelters “a very, very small Band-Aid on a massive problem.” 

When asked to respond to criticisms, Kennedy said that it’s easy for people to share their opinions but that “ that no one [who is] airing any of those concerns is really bringing any other immediate options to the table.”

Executive director of Tiny House Community Development, Inc. Scott Jones has some ideas. 

Jones said that the houses built by Tiny House Community Development, Inc. — which works to create permanent housing for the homeless — are typically 300 square feet and cost $135 per square foot.

“We’re talking about a one-bedroom, one-bath, with a full kitchen and small living room versus a plastic shack,” Jones said.

A Tiny House Community (courtesy photo)

Council member Matheny also leaned toward more permanent solutions.

“What other things have we done that could’ve been somewhat permanent?,” he asked during the Nov. 15 council meeting. “There are other places that we could buy to actually house people today.”

Singleton said in an interview with TCB that while she agrees with the need for permanent housing, the Pallet houses offer a “bridge” solution.

“You have to offer these bridge programs because there’s always the right-now that you’re dealing with,” she said. “People that are in dangerously cold temperatures that can’t afford to wait two more years before they have a permanent solution.

“As far as the Interactive Resource Center is concerned, the only real answer to people experiencing homelessness is being able to offer safe, affordable housing,” she continued. “I do believe that our community is closer to that than we’ve ever been,” she said.

Still, others who work with the unhoused year round like Jones argued during the Oct. 10 meeting that the city could have come up with a better solution.

“We face this every year,” he said. “We’ve had six months to prepare for this before this winter weather comes. What have we been doing for these six months? Nothing.” 

Jones urged the council; “Give it some time. This is too quick. This is a lot of money.”

Critics of the Pallet program like Stone believe that a better solution is out there.

“We need housing to be actually invested in,” Stone said. “It should be a human right and we have the capacity to make that happen.”

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