As our eight weeks come to a close, I cannot find it within myself to simply walk away from Urban Ministries of Durham. This is not because I feel I have yet to make a significant contribution; on the contrary, it is because I cannot help but feel as though it is still not enough. Given that homelessness is such a multifaceted and vast problem, there is no easy fix. While providing meals, clothes, and shelter is of the utmost importance, this is not a long-term solution. Ideally, prevention of homelessness is the goal—yet currently there is no easy way to reach such a lofty goal. Nevertheless, UMD fights daily to reduce homelessness, one person at a time.
Urban Ministries of Durham is one of two homeless shelters in Durham; as such, there is a clear need for UMD in Durham. According to UMD’s website, it is estimated that 3000-5000 people experience homelessness in Durham annually—and this number is only increasing. UMD both assists those who are homeless and aims to prevent those on the cusp from becoming homeless. In order to truly focus on how to prevent homelessness, one must inherently ask—how do people become homeless in the first place? What causes homelessness? Obviously there is no one right answer to this question. Homelessness can be caused by various different factors (both individually and collectively). For some, underemployment is the root cause of homelessness; for others it is addiction, eviction, disabilities, illnesses, fleeing from abuse, or even recent release from prison. Despite the vast array of primary causes of homelessness, many people still have a very narrow misconstrued view of what causes homelessness. In order to truly penetrate the issue of homelessness, all previous misconceptions must be discarded. Hopefully once we as a community truly grasp the countless causes of homelessness and also begin to identify with our homeless neighbors, greater strides will be made to provide our fellow brethren in need with the services necessary to escape the vicious cycle of homelessness.
In fact, when one truly understands homelessness, it soon becomes abundantly clear how quickly and easily one can find themselves homeless in this day and age. Underemployment can and has catastrophically damaged peoples’ lives. Living without income makes it quite difficult to pay your bills or to provide for your family. Living with a life-threatening disease that requires a lot of medical attention often depletes all your funds quickly. The examples are endless. The point is clear: homelessness is, in many cases, unavoidable.
Working on the front line helping individual after individual truly makes me feel like I am making a difference. The difference does not always have to be a large one. Working with the homeless is not a popular job and quite frankly, I never would have imagined how much I would become attached to these people and their various causes. These are people, many of them not much different from you or I, struggling just to survive and stay off the streets. I cannot express the absolute heartache that comes when you simply cannot help someone in need. For instance, a desperate mother comes in with four children and asks for a place to stay. However, we have a waiting list of more than forty families. After calling all of the shelters in Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh, I find there is no room for this family anywhere. The only place that does have room will not accept her family because she has a son that is 13. How does one come to terms with the fact that we simply do not have enough rooms to accommodate the numerous homeless families in and around Durham? Where do these families go when they walk out that door? In most cases, they have nowhere to turn. This mother began to cry. I knew that there was nothing more I could do to help her other than to pray that her family would be safe and find somewhere to stay. I wish I could say that this mother’s experience is a rare one—but the truth of the matter is that her experience is far from unique. This type of helpless situation happens all the time. No one should have to endure the daily hardships that are inherent in homelessness, especially not children. The immeasurable damage that homelessness has the potential to do to a child (or an adult) is frightening. Something more has to be done.