I remember a time before I-540 existed. Horse pastures and trees filled the spaces where concrete and metal now live. It’s quicker for many commuters to get around Raleigh using I-540 – I’ve even become a believer – but along with convenience, it created something else: a captive audience for the homeless and needy.
Michael is one of them. I encountered him Tuesday on the grass near the off ramp from 540 onto Creedmoor Road. He waved at the cars stopped at the red light while holding up a sign that read “Homeless. Jobless.”
He’s not much for help, except the spare change donated by drivers. More than anything, he just wanted to be in out of the elements.
“To be honest with you, I got myself in this mess, and I try to get myself out of it,” he said when I asked if he used much in the way of government or church resources. He added later, “I just come out here to get the money so I can have me a place over my head.”
He commutes every day, taking the bus from downtown to this isolated spot in North Raleigh because it’s safer for him to beg here.
“It’s the only place you can come without getting arrested,” he said.
He saves up enough money to get some food and maybe a hotel or motel to stay in. He was hoping to make enough Tuesday and Wednesday to get some shelter for the Thanksgiving holiday. Then this weekend, he was planning to take advantage of some of the free meals given out to the homeless downtown.
I pointed out to Michael that he was only a short walk from the crisis center and food pantry of North Raleigh Ministries, one of the few official operations offering help to the needy in North Raleigh. It can provide financial assistance, clothes, food and more. Michael said that even if he got some food, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.
“I ain’t got nowhere to take no food unless I get a hotel room,” he said.
Aid scarce in N. Raleigh
Michael’s plight and that of others I’ve seen at countless intersections in North Raleigh made me wonder what it would be like to be homeless in North Raleigh. Michael may commute downtown for help, but others are not able to do that.
Heather Rodrigues is an associate pastor at Millbrook United Methodist Church. She says she sees many people begging where Old Wake Forest Road meets I-440, but she really became aware of the unaddressed needs of the homeless last year when someone taped a note to the front door of her church. Rodrigues paraphrased it for me.
“We’re hungry, and we’re homeless, and we’re walking by your church and we’re Dumpster diving,” she said. “And we don’t have anywhere to get food to eat in North Raleigh.”
The note acknowledged that more resources existed downtown, but the people who wrote it said they did not have money for bus fare.
The church put a note in its weekly bulletin about the plea, and a group of members got together and eventually formed two ministries. One is a food pantry. The other is a free meal, offered every month, to anyone who walks through the church doors.
“We’ve seen an opportunity to do ministry right around our church, and this letter really opened up our hearts and brought it to the forefront,” Rodrigues said.
Churches unite to help
In North Raleigh, churches are leading the battle against hunger and homelessness. Lawrence Yoo is an associate pastor at the North Raleigh United Methodist Church. He oversees the congregation’s outreach and mission projects. His church partners with other agencies, many of whom are based downtown, to help the area homeless.
“We don’t have the ability or the skillset as the church by itself to handle the bigger issue of homelessness and hunger,” Yoo said.
One of the groups he partners with is the Wake Interfaith Hospitality Network on Method Road, far from North Raleigh. Among other things, that facility works with churches in North Raleigh and around the area to find temporary shelter for the homeless. Churches take turns providing transportation, food and a place to sleep. Yoo said his church participates three or four weeks a year.
North Raleigh UMC and many other North Raleigh churches financially and physically support charitable organizations downtown, and operations such as North Raleigh Ministries. But the resources in the sprawling suburbs of North Raleigh just aren’t plentiful enough.
“Compared to downtown Raleigh, there aren’t as many opportunities honestly,” Yoo said.
It’s also hard to tell what the homeless population looks like in North Raleigh. Lisa Williams, executive director of Wake Interfaith Hospitality Network says that every January, the county takes a count of the area’s homeless. Those sleeping in shelter beds are easy enough to find, but others are more elusive.
“It’s really not getting the majority of the people who are sleeping outside or doubled up,” Williams said.
During the last count, Wake County identified 1,889 homeless, she said. Of those, 152 were found in homeless camps rather than in shelters. But again, those were only the people that the county was able to find. There’s no telling how many more are effectively invisible to official eyes.
As for Michael, he doesn’t stay in shelters. When he has to sleep outside, he does so near the Salvation Army downtown.
He has lived in Raleigh since he was 15 and used to work, but he has a criminal record and says finding jobs is difficult. So, for now, he’s going to keep doing what he’s doing and hoping he makes enough money each day to get some shelter from the cold.
Meanwhile, he endures the judgment of the commuters sitting warm in their cars, deciding whether they want to spare a dollar for a stranger.
“People just look at you like you’re crazy,” he said.
I know that I will try to look at him, and people like him, differently from now on. Who knows? One day I could be in his place.
Alex Granados writes about people, places and traditions in North Raleigh and beyond. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.