By Amanda Greene
Religion News Wilmington
A group of Brunswick County churches are mulling a plan to create the county’s first temporary homeless shelter network.
The plan aims to create a countywide homeless outreach that provides overnight shelter during the coldest months of the year – November through February – at host church sites on a weekly rotating basis. The proposal is similar to the Wilmington Interfaith Hospitality Network where 13 churches share duties providing night shelter and evening and morning meals for homeless families. Another group of congregations support WIHN with donations.
For Phelps, it was about Brunswick County churches and agencies housing the needy in their midst.
“I did emphasize to the council how humiliating it is to send our homeless to other counties,” she said. “It makes a bad reputation for the churches when someone comes to your church, and you say we’re sorry, we can’t help you.”
The council did not vote on the proposal at the meeting but sent representatives back to each of their churches to pitch the idea before Christmas.
Phelps applied for nonprofit status for Brunswick County Streetreach, Inc. in early December and got the word its application was approved this week.
A geographic challenge
For many years, Brunswick County – one of the state’s largest geographic counties and one of its fastest growing – has been an inhospitable place if you’re homeless. The fact that the land is broken into widespread farming and beach communities and islands with no county bus system has made having a central location that the homeless could reach difficult.
With no homeless shelters, those in housing crisis were faced with two basic choices, camp or find temporary housing on a friend or relative’s couch. One Brunswick homeless camp inhabited mainly by Latinos has grown so large it has its own name – Cancun, said Julia Steffen, a Shallotte resident and project manager working with the United Way of the Cape Fear Area’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.
And eventually, when those options run out or it gets too cold to camp, many people make their way over the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge to Wilmington or south to Myrtle Beach, where homeless services are more abundant.
“We do get a fair percentage of people coming from Brunswick County to join the program here because the opportunity to find employment in Brunswick is frankly zero without a vehicle,” said Steve Spain, WIHN’s executive director. “So there’s certainly a need in Brunswick. What’s going to be a challenge for them is how to pull off something in such a spread out area.”
Good Shepherd Center executive director Katrina Knight said her Wilmington homeless agency isn’t being overwhelmed by Brunswick guests, but she’s seeing more from the county.
Many of the homeless Phelps meets are either war veterans with mental health issues, families or men recently released from prison. Some families are living in their storage units while others are living in their cars.
Phelps wants to help end that cycle.
“The Bible says to start at home, and we really need to start at home here in Brunswick County,” she said. “I’m gonna do whatever I’ve gotta do to help them. We’re trying to network with the churches and just tear down those denominational walls.”
Help for ‘the least of these’
Though the Cape Fear Area Continuum of Care’s Point-In-Time homeless count for 2011 said Brunswick County has 21 homeless residents, 383 in New Hanover County and 79 in Pender County, the local United Way’s strategic director Dan Ferrell said the actual number is probably at least twice that counted within PIT’s 24-hour period. The Continuum of Care – which includes many local agencies and nonprofits such as the local United Way and Southeastern Center for Mental Health – uses the count each year to apply for federal funds to help the homeless. The 2012 tri-county PIT count will start at 5 p.m. Jan. 25- 5 p.m. Jan. 26.
Steffen said the United Way is doing extra outreach into Brunswick County this year to ensure a more accurate count.
But Phelps knows the Brunswick number is much larger than 21.
Just since September, Phelps said she’s taken 30 people to shelters in Wilmington and Myrtle Beach. She said her ministry gets five or six help calls a day from homeless families and individuals.
Standing in her Shallotte ministry offices crowded with Christmas presents for prisoners’ children, Phelps pulled out a silver folded blanket the size of a checkbook.
“It’s a space blanket. It keeps their body heat in so they don’t freeze overnight,” Phelps said of the essential item included in a bag of toiletries she and her husband give to any homeless person who comes to their ministry for help.
She wants the churches to take a more direct approach than just making sure a homeless person doesn’t freeze to death overnight.
Brunswick County churches and agencies took a step forward with the creation of the Brunswick County Homeless Coalition in November, now with 15-20 members.
“I think it’s probably a very thorough proposal,” said Barbara Serafin, a member of the new coalition. “She (Phelps) is really focusing on what needs to be done. Right now, we’re working with several agencies and ministries and trying to understand just what the scope of our homeless community is.” The Coalition plans to meet once a month at St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church in Shallotte.
Knight said there is a tension between counties over services that New Hanover agencies provide to people coming from Brunswick County.
“This is happening across the country where larger cities are saying hey what are nearby more rural communities doing to increase your services for people in housing crisis,” Knight added.
Eventually, Phelps hopes the interchurch effort can remain faith-based and fuse into a full-time shelter.
Brunswick County people “have to start helping each other and get past the judgment of well, why are they homeless in the first place?” Phelps added. “It don’t matter why they’re homeless. I want to help people’s suffering be alleviated.”
Contact Amanda Greene at Amanda.Greene@ReligionNews.com