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Nonprofits struggle, sometimes differ, on best ways to help Burlington homeless

Many area residents have beaten a path to the thermostat this spring as sudden blasts of cold weather have repeatedly elbowed their way into the forecast.

But for those without reliable shelter, these periodic chills have posed a much more perilous challenge – one that may send them pounding the proverbial pavement in search of a foul-weather refuge.

For a substantial number of these homeless individuals, the quest for a warm place to sleep has ultimately ended with the sight of a white flag.  This, to be clear, is not the white flag of unconditional surrender, but a much more auspicious banner that some churches and charitable organizations raise when the weather turns bleak to indicate that they offer a temporary redoubt for the homeless.

In Burlington, this visual welcome has waved particularly proudly in front of Freedom Fellowship Church, whose small, whitewashed sanctuary along Trollinger Street has become a regular destination for many of the city’s less fortunate denizens.

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Gene Cates, the pastor of this Burlington-based congregation, acknowledges that this cozy building can get rather crowded whenever the pallid pennant goes up at the entrance.

“If we hang out a white flag, it means that the homeless can sleep in our facility when the temperature drops below 35 degrees,” he explained, “and we’ve had as many as 23 people in here at a time.”


A burgeoning crisis

Freedom Fellowship Church is merely one of several white flag shelters that are currently active in the Burlington area. These ad hoc hostelries operate alongside the city’s only full-time homeless shelter, which the nonprofit Allied Churches of Alamance County has established along Fisher Street. Meanwhile, organizations like the Piedmont Rescue Mission also provide accommodations for specialized groups – such as men with substance abuse problems who need stable social support.

Yet, these sundry and assorted shelters have recently had their work cut out for them as Burlington’s homeless population has increased in step with the prevailing national trend.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the nation’s homeless population shot up by about 12 percent in 2023 – as an additional 70,650 people found themselves without reliable housing over the previous year. Although HUD’s figures credit North Carolina with a more modest increase of 4 percent, this growth has been more pronounced in certain areas, like cities along major interstate highways.

While HUD hasn’t released any specific numbers for Burlington, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the city’s homeless population has been on the rise. Last month, members of Burlington’s city council even voiced their concerns about the growing number of people who are sleeping in the rough within the city’s downtown business district.

The apparent increase in Burlington’s homeless population has also furrowed the brows of Jai Baker, who serves as the executive director of Allied Churches. Baker contends that the latest additions to this demographic group aren’t necessarily the vagrants, or chronically homeless individuals, that some people assume are pouring into the city. In fact, he believes that much of the increase comes from people who, until recently, had somewhere reliable to lay their heads.

“I would venture to say that we have a lack of affordable housing in the community,” Baker went on to explain. “This creates a lot of situational homelessness where individuals are losing their jobs or they’re losing their houses. The factories that have closed in the past several months have caused situational homelessness, and when someone is evicted, it excludes them from about 75 percent of the rental housing that’s out here.”


The ‘multisystemic’ solution

Baker admits that that Allied Churches has come under additional strain as it labors to serve the growing number of area residents who can’t afford housing. He nevertheless notes that the organization remains committed to the same multifaceted approach that he has favored throughout his own tenure as its director.

“If you want to be clinical, we try to take a multisystemic approach. At Allied Churches, we’ve decided to focus on five core areas . . . the first one is education, the second is employment, the third is family dynamics, the fourth is mental health and wellness, and number five is access to affordable housing or housing stock.”

– Jai Baker, executive director of Allied Churches

As part of their strategy, Baker and his colleagues have tried to address the root causes of homelessness at the same that they’re treating the symptoms by offering shelter and free meals to people in need.

“If you want to be clinical, we try to take a multisystemic approach,” he went on to explain. “At Allied Churches, we’ve decided to focus on five core areas…the first one is education, the second is employment, the third is family dynamics, the fourth is mental health and wellness, and number five is access to affordable housing or housing stock.”

By embracing the multisystemic approach, Allied Churches has combined the traditional role of a homeless shelter with functions that may seem more reminiscent of an employment office or a rental agency. The organization even provides case management for people who pass through its shelter to ensure that they avoid the same pitfalls that originally left them without roofs over their heads.

Baker stressed that Allied Churches offers these more sophisticated services alongside the homeless shelter and soup kitchen that have been, and remain, its bread-and-butter. He noted, for instance, that when the shelter clears out at 8:00 a.m. every weekday, its occupants can mosey over to the adjoining “empowerment center” to pore over online want ads, look for apartments, or just kick back on the couch and watch some TV.

In either case, Baker insists that his organization’s five-pronged approach to the problem of homelessness has made an appreciable difference in the lives of countless individuals who had fallen on hard times.

“If we focus on these core areas, we can address someone’s homelessness in 45 to 80 days,” he added. “The caveat to this is that these services are client choice…If you give individuals choices, they can go to one place or they can go to another.”


Slipped through the cracks

Yet, the rarefied approach of Allied Churches hasn’t resonated with everyone who has shown up at its organizational headquarters on Fisher Street.

Among those who’ve found the group’s shelter a a bit off-putting is Daniel Jones, a newly homeless 48-year-old from Pennsylvania who recently made his way down to North Carolina after a bout of bad luck in his home state.

Jones recalled that Allied Churches’ HQ was actually his very first stop when he arrived in Burlington about two months ago.

“I had a friend in Raleigh who referred me to ACAC,” he recalled. “But the lady who was running it was less than cooperative. She ended up telling me to get off the property.”

The Pennsylvania transplant added that he got a much more cordial reception from Freedom Fellowship Church, which has thrown open its doors to dozens of people like Jones in its capacity as a white-flag shelter.

Gene and Julie Cates of Freedom Fellowship Church show the white flag that’s displayed outside the church when it has available room for the homeless.

Since Jones first sought sanctuary at the Trollinger Street church, he has become a faithful factotum for Cates, who has found plenty of work for him at the thrift store and a food bank that he operates about a block from the church.

Cates, for his part, confessed that the experiences of people like Jones illustrate one of the reasons why he chose to designate Freedom Fellowship as a white flag shelter when the opportunity to do so arose this past fall.

“There’s a lot of talk about how the [Allied Churches] homeless shelter needs to be more open,” the church’s pastor elaborated. “Some people don’t like the way that they’re treated there, and if you don’t get there before 5 o’clock, they won’t let you in even if it’s freezing outside.”

Allied Churches received an even more damning indictment from Debra Childrey, a colleague of Cates who addressed Burlington’s city council last month.

Debra Childrey

During a designated public comment period on March 5, Childrey blasted the homeless shelter on Fisher Street for its alleged failure to fill its dorms to capacity even on nights when the temperatures have sunk below freezing. By contrast, Childrey said that Freedom Fellowship has accommodated all comers as long as it didn’t block any fire exits.

“We’re not turning away anybody,” he insisted. “The only way I’ll turn you down is if you’re a sex offender.”


Different strokes

In response to Childrey’s critique, Baker concedes that Allied Churches can, indeed, turn people away from its shelter even if one or more of its dormitories has available space. Since one of these dorms is set aside exclusively for women and another only serves families, men who are traveling alone may be out of luck if Allied Churches doesn’t have any vacancies in its designated men’s dormitory.

Baker also confirmed that he encourages new shelter seekers to arrive at his Fisher Street dormitories during regular business hours. He noted that anyone who shows up before 5:00 p.m. can go through the organization’s “coordinated assessment” process with a member of his staff.

Baker nevertheless stressed that the shelter does admit people after hours in the event of emergencies. He added that, in its general entry protocols, Allied Churches isn’t much different from Freedom Fellowship or its equivalents.

“The white flag shelters are using the exact same policies that we are,” he observed.

In the meantime, the city’s white flag shelters have become a talking point in their own right for Burlington’s municipal leaders.

The presence of several such sites near the city’s downtown business district recently came up for discussion when Burlington’s city council addressed the public’s ongoing complaints about the district’s complement of homeless people.  Even so, the district’s proximity to these white-flag shelters didn’t seem to pose much of a problem for the city’s police chief Alan Balog.

“They have all made a decision to allow people to sleep on their property.   We don’t hear a lot of complaints from the churches . . . the faith community is really using their best judgment to decide whether to allow people on their property or not.”

– Burlington police chief Alan Balog

“They have all made a decision to allow people to sleep on their property,” Balog explained during a city council work session on March 4. “We don’t hear a lot of complaints from the churches…the faith community is really using their best judgment to decide whether to allow people on their property or not.”

Erin Nettles, the city’s downtown director, is also quick to downplay the spillover effects from the couple of churches that have invited homeless people to stay on their grounds.

In an interview with The Alamance News, Nettles confessed that there really hasn’t been much of an issue with these white flag shelters. By the same token, Nettles conceded that the district’s homeless contingent has generally not been much of an issue for city officials.

Burlington police chief Alan Balog and downtown director Erin Nettles during a work session with the city council last month.

“They’re really not causing any trouble. It’s really more of a perception with people who see them and are feeling unsafe.”

– Burlington downtown director Erin Nettles

“They’re really not causing any trouble,” she acknowledged in a recent conversation. “It’s really more of a perception with people who see them and are feeling unsafe.”


Bringing it ‘home’

Meanwhile, Freedom Fellowship’s status as a white flag shelter is far from the only thing that this Trollinger Street congregation has done to assist the homeless.

Cates’ latest bid to improve the lot of this group revolves around a proposed collection of “palette homes” that he hopes to set up near his church’s advance base on Trollinger Street.

At just 100 square feet apiece, these small, manufactured dwellings are equipped with a couple of beds, a microwave, and an HVAC unit. They also have room for a minifridge, but lack running water or restroom facilities, which Cates intends to provide within easy reach of these dwellings. Still, these miniscule homes would provide basic shelter for people with no other alternatives – assuming, that is, Cates brings this plan to fruition.

The minister said that he’s currently looking at some property along Webb Avenue that could be a promising site for these homes. In the meantime, however, Cates believes that it will take a sea change in the broader community to bring lasting relief to the homeless.

“Most homeless people just want to get back to a normal life,” he argued. “The only way we’re going to solve the problem is if we start reaching out and helping these people…We also need to get the rent down so people can afford it.”

On this point, at least, Cates doesn’t get any argument from his equivalent at Allied Churches – who insists that greater cooperation from the rental industry is, perhaps, the single biggest wish that he himself has on behalf of the homeless.

“From a community standpoint, we could use an all-call to private landlords,” he went on to explain. “I say private landlords because [unlike public housing], they can opt to partner with an agency like us that offers case management.”

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