Credit: Photo from Pexels

In recent years, Durham’s rents and its homeless population have risen in tandem. As temperatures drop, people living out of their cars and on the streets are at risk of freezing to death. Durham faces a chilling statistic: 50 of the city’s families have self reported as unsheltered homeless.

“It’s scary when we have this number of people living on the street, families,” says Rebecca Bourgeois, the street outreach program manager for the nonprofit Housing for New Hope. “Close to more than half of those have children under age five. As a mom I can’t imagine not having somewhere to go and not having an emergency plan … in the coldest part of the year.”

Today, November 1, the City of Durham, in partnership with Open Table Ministry, will begin renting ten rooms at a local motel for unhoused community members. Six rooms will be set aside for unhoused families, with the remaining four reserved for highly vulnerable individuals and couples. Provided the program remains on budget, the rooms will be available week to week until the end of March 2024.

Colin Davis, the homeless system manager for Durham’s community development department, says the first group to go into the shelter today will stay week to week, regardless of the temperatures.

“We’re doing this with the goal of getting them into permanent housing,” Davis says. 

All of the shelters in Durham with the ability to serve families—Urban Ministries, Families Moving Forward, and Durham Crisis Response Center—are consistently at capacity. On “white flag” nights this coming winter, when temperatures drop below 32 degrees, Families Moving Forward and Urban Ministries will make overflow space available for families in need. 

Volunteers serve lunch trays at Urban Ministries Credit: Courtesy of Urban Ministries

The gap between the emergency motel’s available family rooms (six) and the number of Durham families reporting as unsheltered (50) is striking.

“As a city and as a system, I don’t think that any of this is adequate,” Bourgeois says.

Durham’s Continuum of Care, the city’s multi-organizational effort to combat homelessness, faces an array of issues in devising a winter weather plan for unhoused residents. According to Davis, Open Table Ministry was the only organization willing to operate an emergency shelter. The early pandemic federal funds that helped bankroll an emergency congregate winter shelter in 2021 and 2022 have dried up. The current, lower capacity motel shelter is funded entirely with city money. 

“It’s hard to guarantee that you can find a hotel that will have X number of rooms available with very short notice. And the cost is prohibitive. This is our way of stretching what we have,” Davis says. “Right now we’re tapped out by what motels are comfortable doing and what we can sustain funding-wise.”

According to Drew Woten, executive director of Open Table Ministry, there are tradeoffs between running an emergency congregate shelter and a motel shelter. While congregate shelters can often serve more individuals, they present logistical challenges. Woten cites the difficulties of safely housing individuals and families side by side in a congregate setting, the lack of spaces in Durham willing to host a congregate shelter, and difficulties hiring and paying reliable overnight staff as reasons for choosing to operate a motel shelter. 

Woten is clear, however, that motel shelters run into their own sets of operational difficulties, among them Durham’s turbulent real estate market.

“We had an original motel and we called two weeks ago to confirm a November 1st start date. And the management had sold the motel and decided they didn’t want our contract,” Woten says.

Woten acknowledges that the motel shelter will not meet the needs of all community members but, with the goal of providing case management and rapid rehousing services, as well as meals and a motel with kitchenettes in-room, the 10 rooms are what his group can offer. 

“It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need,” Woten says. “But it comes down to how many rooms we can find, the housing services we can provide, and the amount of quality rooms that we can afford.”

Woten adds that, last year, Open Table offered motel rooms that were cheaper but not up to the standard  the ministry wanted for its guests.

“It’s about balancing our budget and our bandwidth,” he says. 

Davis says the city is talking with local faith leaders regarding the possibility of creating spaces for families on emergency cold-weather nights, although it is unclear if that will come to fruition this winter. Currently, the city has no plans to build new shelters and increase its overall bed capacity. Davis points to limited funding and resources and a need for strategic allocation. 

“Do you put limited resources in temporary solutions? Or do you put resources into permanent solutions to turn the beds over more frequently?” Davis says. “You could build more emergency shelter beds, but if people can’t exit those beds, you just have a bigger logjam. If you can figure out exit strategies from an emergency shelter and turn them over every 30 days, as opposed to 90, that’s more people you just helped without adding an extra bed.” 

Credit: Photo from Unsplash

Homelessness is often described as a symptom of broader societal illnesses and not necessarily a cause. Davis, Woten, Bourgeois, and others working in Durham’s homeless system can overhaul their programs and work with the funds they have, but much of what pushes families out of homes and onto the streets is outside their control. 

North Carolina cities can’t legally implement rent control, and tenants’ rights in the state rank among the worst in the country. Durham’s housing crisis has no end in sight, and developers announcing behemoth projects across town, from Hayti to Northgate, have made few commitments to contribute to the city’s affordable housing stock. Bourgeois hopes more organizations will step up and help combat homelessness. 

“This year in particular, we’re seeing more and more families on the street,” she says.“The system just wasn’t built to handle that … Expanding shelter for families is a five-year process, and we have people experiencing crisis right now. I’d love to see more churches and other groups …open their doors and provide some kind of safety net for people, especially on nights where it’s going below freezing.” 

If you or a loved one is facing homelessness in Durham, please call Entry Point Durham at 984-287-8313 to set up an intake by phone. 

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