Most nights, upward of 300 men stay at the South Wilmington Street Center in Raleigh, a big old warehouse of a homeless shelter. One night, they had 407. That’s too many, way too many. It’s depressing, but it beats nowhere to stay at all, and for most of the men, that’s the alternative.

There’s no simple way to describe 300 men. They are individuals. They have problems. They have strengths. They have intelligence, self-awareness and self-delusions, too, as do we all–it’s just a question of degree, isn’t it? Ann Burke’s description is better than anything I came up with. She’s the executive director of Urban Ministries, the organization that manages the shelter under contract to Wake County. “These people really need help,” Burke said, “and they have lots of potential.”

I’ve been a visitor at the shelter an hour or two a week for the past couple of months, along with photographer Laura Giovanelli. Laura called me one day and said she wanted to show the faces of homeless people and could I help? Yes, and here’s why. People who’ve hit bottom in their lives need to know that the rest of us care and that we’re paying attention. But I’m a great example of not caring about what I don’t see, and I don’t see homeless people. I look away.

And just to make sure that they aren’t seen very much, the city of Raleigh arranged a few years ago, as the homeless population grew, to close the old downtown shelter and open this one on the outskirts of town in what literally was a warehouse behind an empty factory. I wrote about it at the time, but–out of sight, out of mind–I’d never come back. And to be honest, the way the city was running the place at the time, before the county took it over, it felt like a prison, and I realize now I was scared off. When Laura called, it was a chance to set something right.

So in we walked, day one, through the metal detector, and we met Ricky Sanders. He came up and asked who we were, and when I told him, he asked what I’d written lately. I told him about Coker Towers–the rezoning fight in Raleigh–and bless him, he smiled and said a city should have the shape of a tent when you push it up in the middle with a pole. “Take it from an ironworker,” he said.

Well, darned right–tall buildings should be downtown! And off we went, trading ideas about urban design, and if we hadn’t been in a homeless shelter, we might have been mistaken for students (aging ones, admittedly) in a sociology class.

Ricky, three-fourths Native American, has the nimble, athletic look of someone who’s worked on steel scaffolding, which he has. He also has a way of talking in analogies when he’s asked why he lives in a shelter–and has for the last 18 months. He had some trouble, ended up in prison for a year. He’s still working things out. I can’t explain him, really, except to say that he’s a bright man, very engaging, who knows his way around Raleigh (it was a beautiful day, so we went out for a drive), but is somehow disconnected from the world of work.

He’s not in the shelter’s transitional program, so he doesn’t have a caseworker, and if he did I wouldn’t pry into his case. He takes day labor sometimes. He needs a regular job, I tell him. Big help, right? But he was a big help to us. He eased us into the place, we met other men while walking through with him, and every time we’ve been back and he’s been there, he says hello and brings us up to date. An attractive young woman shooting pictures in a men’s shelter gets some unwanted attention, but other than that, we’ve enjoyed our visits. Nothing scary about it.

So who lives there? Men with disabilities–physical or mental. Men with substance abuse problems. Alcoholism, mainly. Some cocaine. You see men gathered in the woods off South Wilmington Street just below the shelter, or huddled in small groups behind adjoining buildings, and they’re taking a last nip before they come in. It’s on their breath. If they’re really drunk, they don’t get in, but most of them can tone it down, time their drinking so it’s under control when they get here, and the managers take pity.

Roy is one such person. He told me his last name, but now that I think about it, I’m going to omit it, because he was intoxicated when I talked to him and when Laura photographed him. Just another drunk? Roy said he served for 13 years in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, headquartered at Fort Bragg, with tours of duty in the Sinai Peninsula, in Italy and in Germany. He has three specialties, he said: infantry, of course, and also supply officer and news photographer. He was a captain in the Army Reserve. And he’s been falling apart since his wife passed with cancer three years ago. He wears a wristband from Wake Medical Center in case of emergency. “I have seizures when I have a lot of pressure,” he said.

And then he started crying. He was proud of his life before, he said. He’d worked on a master’s degree in three different universities while moving around in the Army. His first wife couldn’t adjust to Army life and left him. With his second wife, he had two daughters, now 13 and 10. They’re with his mother-in-law. His second wife worked in a textile plant in Lillington, and she left him a pension, but he can’t collect it until he’s 60–nine more years. His lawyer tried to make a deal for him to collect a lesser amount now. The company said no. A disability payment from Social Security is a possibility, but it takes a long time to qualify. An SSI payment–a form of welfare for people unable to work because of disabilities like alcoholism–is another possibility, but it’s not much money. He’s talked to Raleigh Housing Authority about an apartment at Brentwood Towers or Walnut Terrace, two of RHA’s subsidized housing projects.

A picture flashed in my mind of Roy living alone, dying alone, in a project. “I’m bumping my head against the walls trying to get something done,” he said, apologizing and crying some more. “I drink to make it seem like it’s not as bad as it seems. I know, logically, it’s not the answer.”

I think every word Roy told me is true. I don’t know that for sure, but it had the ring–and pain–of truth. Some of the men here tell you things and you wonder–is this stuff for real? Do they even know if it’s real? But more often, the opposite seems to be the case: The men who want to talk (and that isn’t everybody) struck me as beyond lying.

Ronald, someone you might see downtown from time to time with his bejeweled walking stick, says he went to college for three-and-a-half years intending to be a social worker. Then he decided he wanted to work with kids, and had a job in a Head Start program for 20 years.

Now? Well, he’s been living in the shelter for a year, and he doesn’t say why. He does have a great smile, though, and he hasn’t stopped dreaming about the trips he’d like to take–to Yellowstone Park, or back to Bennington, Vt., where he once sang with his college choir. He tries to get out every day, walk to town–it’s about a mile–and get lunch at one of the soup kitchens. He has good days and bad. “It’s not a place you want to come,” he says. “I make the best of it. I can’t do any better, and there’s no use sitting around and moping.”

On the other hand, there was Glenn Johnson. He’s moved out now after a three-month stay. He “had problem with drugs and alcohol,” he said. He left his wife, his house and a construction job behind in Roanoke Rapids and drifted to Raleigh, where he found, first, the shelter, and next the Chavis Heights A.M.E. Baptist Church. On Dec. 23, he said, the preacher seemed to be talking just to him. “He said, your family doesn’t know where you are,” Johnson recalled. That night, for the first time in months, he called home.

“I had really lost myself,” Johnson says. “I looked around at the people [in the shelter], and I said, I don’t want to live like that.” We talked as he was preparing to leave. He’d been through a 12-week program called The Fisherman’s Project, run out of the Good Shepherd Church, which stresses “job readiness” in general and, in his case, prepared him to look for work cooking in a restaurant, a longtime goal.

Johnson is a serious man and, sober, an impressive one. While at the shelter he joined the residents advisory council, which is an attempt to get the men to take responsibility for their surroundings. The council had done some good, he said. “But it’s still bad here. It’s still filthy.” I asked him, out of 300 men, how many he thought were making an effort to get out and improve their lives. About 50 or 75, he said. “The others, it’s gonna be hard,” he said. “It’ll take a miracle.” I looked at him then and he added: “I am one, yeah. Yeah. They can come out of this.”

Johnson’s take was about the same as Ann Burke’s. In the year since the county took over, 26 men who completed the formal transitional program moved on to a job and a permanent place to live. At any given time, 50 to 100 more are trying to do the same. To qualify for transition: no drinking or drugs; look for a job; save 75 percent of your money.

Burke wants to help more of the men, but so far she’s short-staffed: Urban Ministries has filled its four case manager positions, but two of the four jobs the county’s supposed to fill remain vacant. The reason: Even mental-health professionals don’t want to be here. “It’s not the most attractive place in the world to work,” she says. “It’s pretty depressing.”

That should improve this fall, when a new facility opens in the factory building out front, which has been gutted and is undergoing reconstruction at a cost of some $2 million. Until then, however, the shelter is little changed from when it was a warehouse for seafood, not humans.

Still, it offers a place to sleep, showers and food, and day after day, men come and accept what it offers. Many stay just a few nights or weeks and move on without anyone really knowing who they were. If they needed to be in a substance-abuse or mental-health program, well, the programs don’t exist, or not nearly enough of them do, anyway.

For a hundred men, however, this warehouse shelter is home. They will live here indefinitely, Burke says, “because there is no other place for them.”

Milton Upchurch, for example, is a sweet man who helps with the nightly dinner service. He said he’s lived in the city or county shelter for 10 years. I said it seemed like a little community here, and he was one of its leading citizens. He nodded. “I have a nice personality,” he added.

So does Emmanuel, once he trusts that you’re listening to him. He wears his hair in dreadlocks and reads First Call, the newspaper of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, and he’s convinced there was a conspiracy during the Reagan Administration to sell drugs, booze and cigarettes in black neighborhoods as a way of keeping folks down. As we talk, he cites the abundant evidence that tobacco companies and liquor companies did, indeed, target minority buyers, and if Reagan didn’t put drugs into the community himself, he did precious little to get them out either.

Emmanuel’s on guard with me for a long time, but finally he relaxes and talks about his two daughters, both 20. They both think they can use profanity, flash tattoos and dress like–I’m not sure what word he used–and still get jobs that pay big money. “That’s what the mainstream culture is teaching them, and that’s the only ‘teaching’ they’re getting,” he says.

What in the world is he doing in a homeless shelter? I’m thinking to myself. I promised him I’d come back and talk again. EndBlock

Volunteers are needed to help at the center, especially daytime hours and on weekends. Walter Davis, Urban Ministries’ volunteer coordinator, can be reached at 828-8480.