Walking the Talk

Monday morning, April 30th, 2018.  The day I hung up my chicken hat.

It’s 7:15, and when I drive up, instead of slipping the chicken hat on my head as I get out of the car, I put it in a plastic grocery bag.  There’s a crowd of maybe 40, standing there waiting, talking among themselves in groups of three or four.  Tables are already set up, and the other volunteers – to whom I gave a heads up the day before – are all standing there looking a little apprehensive or sad maybe.  I can’t tell which.

As I get out of the car, Ms. Betty comes to open my door.  I take her hand and whisper, “Miss Betty, I have something to tell you.  I should have called you yesterday.  We’ll talk about this later, but today will be my last day serving breakfast.”  She looks confused and says “What?  What do you mean, Mama?”  I reply, “Don’t cry now.  We’ll talk later.  This is something I need to do.”  She responds, “Okay, Mama,” and hangs her head.   She always calls me Mama Chicken or just Mama.

I check in with the volunteers to see if they’re ready to start serving.  Everyone is used to me wearing my hat to make announcements.  Today, hat in the plastic bag, I say, “Good morning, ya’ll!”  Several people respond, “Good morning!”  The time has arrived.

Gulping hard, I say, “Y’all, there’s something I have to tell you this morning.  Today will be my last time coming down here to serve breakfast.  I’ve been coming for more than five years now, and nothing has changed.  Things haven’t gotten any better.  Most of you know I’ve been writing against panhandling in the paper.  That’s not against you – but I can’t support homelessness as a lifestyle choice anymore.”  Choking back tears, “I want to expect more FOR you and more FROM you than this.  Living outside is no life.  You can do better for yourself than this.  You can!  Whatever your issues are, I urge you to get some real help.  There’s help out there if you want it.”  Tears are streaming down my cheeks now.

Several people look upset and I reassure them, “I’m not going anywhere.  I’ll still in town and I’ll come find you!”  I reach in the bag, and hand the chicken hat to Miss Betty.  “Miss Betty, I’d like to give this hat to you.  It’s old and I know you’ll give it a good home!” She smiles, taking the hat.  Later that day, someone sent me a picture of her with it on – backwards.  Hilarious.

I continue to talk to people and hug them as they come through the line.  My friend Michael is one of them.  He says, “Hey Amy!  You know, you’re right!  This ain’t no life.”  I ask if he’s outside now. “No!  I’ve had that job at K&W for over a year now.  I still have my place in the rooming house.”  I ask, “And you still need to come down here?  Do you get food stamps?”  He replies, “No, I make too much money now.  Working about 30 hours a week.  I can make it and I don’t go to the meals much no more.  Don’t have to.   I’m talking to another restaurant about getting a job there too!”  I say, “Michael, how long were you outside?”  He responds, “I don’t know.  Several years!  But I ain’t gonna do that no more.”  I ask if he’s still using. Grinning, he says, “Yeah, some, and I need to stay away from that stuff.”  I hug him and say, “You’re right about that, but I’m glad you have a place.”  He says, “Thanks.  Me, too, Miss Amy.  Me, too!”

There were a lot of goodbyes that morning.  Sad stuff.  My guess is some folks were mad at me, but no one said so.  Several people responded along the same lines as Michael, telling me they knew what I said was true, that they need to do better.  One said, “It’s all about expectations.  What you expect for yourself.”  I agree with him.  And as long as we support homelessness as a lifestyle, guess what some people will expect for themselves?

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Little Green and Blue Books April 2018 Editions

Here they are!  The latest editions of “The Little Green Book” and “The Little Blue Book.”   Hard copies are being printed now and should be delivered to all 80+ locations by April 15th.  That is, if all the goodhearted volunteers are willing to help again this go-round!    The Little Green Book 03-09-2018     The Little Blue Book 03-07-2018

Again, many thanks to Greensboro Urban Ministry and Cone Health for footing the bill for printing.  And none of this would be possible without all the kind souls who so faithfully prepare food, show up, and serve…. week after week.  Deepest gratitude!

Updated Little Green Book

The Little Green Book 12-06-2017  There have been a couple of changes since the October 2017 edition, including a time change for the Sunday night meal.  Because it gets dark so early under the bridge, StreetWatch is now serving at 4:30pm.  The other one is the inclusion of Friday morning breakfast by Triad Adventist Church.  With this addition, anyone in Greensboro who is mobile can eat for free, no questions asked, three meals a day, seven days a week.  Amazing.

Awesome job by mostly volunteers, many of whom have been serving for years and years.  There are multitudes of people who are grateful for your kind hearts and service, including me.  Thank you.

 

“They’re 11 and 14.”

Yesterday, yep.  I see miracles.

I was scheduled to speak to a group at Holy Trinity at noon, so about 5 am, the first batch of chicken in the oven, I planned basically what I was going to cover.  I don’t know why.  I never use the darned notes.

On my way to serve breakfast, watching the windshield wipers, I popped in the soundtrack to “Les Miserables.”  I just happened to listen to the piece where the priest lies to save Valjean from going back to prison.  Valjean’s response is beautiful: “How could I allow that man to touch my heart and teach me love?  He treated me like any other.  He gave me his trust; he called me brother.”  As I rounded the corner of Market Street and Davie, sliding on my chicken hat, I prayed my usual prayer, “God, today let me BE Love.  Please.  Let me BE Love.”

Even though it was raining, which means it’s kind of crowded – we have to serve in the corner of the parking garage so we’re not all drenched – things came off pretty much without a hitch.  My friend Veronica had the adorable, petite, two-year old girl that she babysits with her in the breakfast line (Veronica lives inside, but deals with poverty).  After I hugged the little girl, Ms. Betty said, “That’s Jesus hisself, standin’ right there.” I think she’s right.

On a whim, I talked with two of my friends, Ernest and Don, and told them, “Hey!  I’m speaking over at Holy Trinity today at noon.  Any chance y’all want to go?  I’m supposed to talk about homelessness and what’s really going on out here.  And tell people what they can do to help.  If y’all come, they can hear it from the horse’s mouth, instead of secondhand from me.  It’s at noon, so if you miss lunch, we’ll go out afterwards and I’ll buy!”  I was surprised at their courage, but both of them said, “Yeah, I’ll come.  Are you gonna pick us up?”  So we got it all arranged.

Right after that, as breakfast was winding down, I noticed a guy I hadn’t seen before.  I walked over and introduced myself.  His name is Chris and he looks a little like my Dad, reddish hair and blue eyes, medium build, about 35 years old.  I asked if he had picked up a copy of the new edition of “The Little Green Book.”  Chris spoke softly, “No, I don’t want to waste one.  I’m not planning to be here that long.”

I said, “Yeah?  Where are you from?  What’s going on?  Are you outside?”

“I gotta get home to Richmond.  I was doing something with a friend, and the company I was working for found out I had driven their rental car down here, so they stopped it.  I’m stranded, and yeah, I’m outside.  Somebody said there’s a temporary agency that’s hiring and I’m headed over there after this.  I gotta get home and take care of my kids.  As soon as I make enough for bus fare, I’ll be out of here.”

I said, “You have kids?  How old are they?”

Chris said, “They’re 11 and 14.”

I said, “How much is bus fare?”

Chris said, “Seventy dollars.”   I could hear in his voice that to Chris, that was a lot of money.

I said, “Wait right here, okay?  Don’t go anywhere.”

I have to admit I’m a little jaded, or maybe just seasoned from working with folks with substance abuse issues for so long.   One of them told me a few years back that they never ask me for money “because we know you’re not a sucker.”  That’s true; I’m not.  What I did next is not my usual modus operandi, but somehow I knew in my heart that Chris was telling the truth.

I walked over to my friend David Hanner, who serves with me on Mondays, saying, “Hey, David!  I have to go pick up Neng to take him grocery shopping after breakfast, so I can’t do this.  There’s a guy over there who needs just one thing, to get home to Richmond.  He has kids to take care of there, 11 and 14.  Bus fare is seventy dollars.  Somebody sent $200 in donations in the last two months, so I can give the money back to you.  Can you take him to the bus station?  Do you have time after breakfast?”

David responded, “Yes, I can do it.  I can leave right now; I’m almost finished up here.”

I said, “Okay, I’ll tell him.”

I walked over to where Chris was waiting and said, “Chris, my friend David is going to take you to the bus station and pay your fare back to Richmond, so you can get home and take care of your kids.”

Chris looked at me, almost speechless, and his eyes filled with tears.  He murmured, “Thank you.  I don’t know what to say.  I can’t believe it.”

I said, “You don’t have to say anything, Chris.  Just remember that today, somebody loved you.  And your job is to go home and do the same for somebody else.”  Chris just stared at me, eyes brimming.

I introduced David and Chris, and a couple of hours later on my way home, I called David.  David said, “I don’t need the money back.  I’m glad to help.  And you won’t believe this.  The bus left 20 minutes after we got there.  Otherwise, he would have had to wait until 7 pm tonight.  He was so happy.  Chris kept thanking me, and I just told him to go home and do the same for somebody else.  ”

Is there an echo in here?  That’s the story of Valjean.  “How can I allow that man to touch my heart and teach me love?”  Today somebody loved Chris.

Right after that, I hit the trail to walk the dogs and unwind, thinking about Chris and his kids.  Somehow I knew this one gesture would make all the difference for him.  I have no way of knowing if he’ll get all straightened out or not, but I’d be willing to bet he will.

At 11:15, I headed over to pick up Ernest and Don, and off we went to Holy Trinity.  As we walked up, Don marveled at the intricate stonework of the big, fancy church.  We were a few minutes early, and we had a wonderful time with the amazing coffee machine in the meeting room.  Ernest couldn’t get over the fact that the thing actually disposed of the little bag that you insert.  We had so much fun.

When it came time for us to talk, I introduced them, proudly showing off the beautiful handmade jewelry box Ernest crafted for me while living in his van.  I “interviewed” Ernest and Don, so they wouldn’t have to look at the audience and would feel more comfortable.  They did a marvelous job, speaking from their hearts and telling the truth.  Ernest’s optimism showed through when I asked if he had ever been on the wrong side of the law.  He said, “Well, yeah.  I did twelve years in prison.  And my son’s in for fifteen.  He’s just got one more to go though, so he’s doing good!”  I asked, “Ernest, what would have kept you from ever going to prison?”  Ernest responded, “Well, I can’t read and write, and that’s got a lot to do with it! And other stuff too.”  They spoke of hope and how resourceful you have to be to make it outside.  Don told them he had to turn in early the day before, because we were expecting so much rain.  He needed to be under his bridge, nice and dry before the rain started, which is okay, because he reads a lot.  He told them he enjoys novels, and mysteries.  He bragged that his mattress is a Posturepedic.  They told of complex family problems, substance abuse issues, medical issues – Don was hit by a car, walks with a cane, and has grand mal seizures.  He gets $735 per month, and says he can pay $200 – 300 a month for an apartment, but of course we don’t have any in Greensboro for that kind of money.  He has survived outside like this for eight years.

After a while, Don turned to face the audience, wanting to tell his story.  We only had 45 minutes, and I kept having to guide the conversation forward.  Otherwise, we’d still be there.  People outside always want someone to listen, if folks will just take the time.

I figure I might be one of the luckiest people in the world.  Who gets to do this?  Who gets to see the look on someone’s face when someone loves him?  Who gets to have fun with Ernest and the coffee machine?  Who gets to hug a little two year old, pure love, in the breakfast line?

I was tired last night, but so blessed to have lived another day of miracles.  Deep gratitude for these opportunities.  God, thank You.  Let me BE Love.

“The Little Green Book” and “The Little Blue Book” October 2017 editions

Once again, the update is complete!  Bottomless gratitude goes to:

All the tireless folks providing free prepared meals and running food pantries faithfully.

Countless members of the community who donate supplies, labor, and money to keep all of these organizations and groups going.

Cone Health, United Healthcare and Greensboro Urban Ministry for continuing to provide funding for printing.

Piedmont Graphics for their help with printing

Lawrence Ross, our faithful computer guru who formats the little books every six months.

All I can say is AWESOME!  Thank you.

The files are below and 10,000 hard copies of each are in the process of being printed.

The Little Green Book October 2017

The Little Blue Book October 2017

My goal is to get the hard copies delivered by October 15th, to the 80 locations listed below.  Would you like to help with deliveries this year?  If so, please drop me an email at amymurphy1000@gmail.com.  And thank you in advance!

Alamance Presbyterian Church 4000 Presbyterian Rd
Alcohol and Drug Services of Guilford County 301 East Washington St
Bessemer United Methodist Church 3015 East Bessemer Ave
Blessed Table 3210 B Summit Ave
Bread of Life Food Pantry 1606 Phillips Ave
Cedar Grove Tabernacle of Praise 612 Norwalk St
Celia Phelps Memorial United Methodist 3709 Groometown Rd
Center for New North Carolinians 915 West Lee St
City of Greensboro 300 West Washington St
Community Health and Wellness 201 Wendover Ave East
Cone Center for Children pediatric practice 301 East Wendover Ave, Suite 100
Cone Internal Medicine Center 1200 N. Elm (ground floor, east elevators)
Cone Urgent Care 1123 North Church St
Department of Social Services 1203 Maple St
Ebenezer Baptist Church 2700 West Vandalia Rd
Faith Action International 705 North Greene St
Faithworks Ministries 3304 Spring Garden St
Family Justice Center 201 South Greene Street
Family Services of the Piedmont 315 East Washington Street
First Lutheran Church 3600 West Friendly Ave
First Presbyterian 617 North Elm St
Friendly Avenue Church of Christ 5101 W Friendly Ave
Goodwill Industries, JOTO 1235 S. Eugene St
Grace Community Church 643 West Lee St
Grace United Methodist Church 438 West Friendly Ave
Greensboro Central Library Church Street
Greensboro Chamber of Commerce 342 North Elm St
Greensboro Christian Church 3232 Yanceyville St
Greensboro Housing Authority 450 North Church St
Greensboro Housing Coalition 122 North Elm St, Suite 4
Greensboro Police Department 320 Federal Place
Greensboro Urban Ministry 305 West Lee St
Groometown United Methodist Church 5005 Groometown Rd
Guilford Baptist Church 5904 West Market St
Guilford Child Development 1200 Arlington St
Guilford County Food Pantry 202 Franklin Blvd
Guilford County Health Department 1100 Wendover Ave East
Guilford County Schools 2500 Lees Chapel  Road
Interactive Resource Center 407 East Washington St
Jewish Family Services 5509 C West Friendly Ave
Lawndale Baptist Church 3505 Lawndale Dr
Lebanon Baptist Church 4635 Hicone Road
Lutheran Church of Our Father 3304 Groometown Rd
Mary’s House 520 Guilford Ave
Monarch 201 North Eugene St
Montagnard Dega Association 611 Summit Ave #10
Moses Cone Hospital Dept of Social Work 1200 N Elm, Room 3C-120
Mount Zion Baptist Church 1301 Alamance Church Rd
Moye’s Barber Shop 629 MLK Drive
Muirs Chapel United Methodist Church 314 Muirs Chapel Rd
NC African Services Coalition 122 North Elm St
New Covenant Christian Center 1305 Ball St
New Zion Missionary Baptist Church 1310 MLK Dr
Northside Baptist Church 1100 East Cornwallis
Nu-Life Church 209 West Florida St
One Step Further 623 Eugene Ct
Pathways 3517 North Church St
PDY&F Food Pantry 1523 Barto Place
Planned Parenthood 1704 Battleground Ave
Reading Connections 122 North Elm St
Red Cross 1501 Yanceyville St
Salvation Army 1311 S. Eugene St
Sanctuary Deliverance Church 3631 Summit Ave
Senior Resources of Guilford County 301 East Washington St
Servant Center 1312 Lexington Ave
St. James Baptist Church 536 West Florida St
St. Matthews United Methodist Church 600 East Florida St
St. Paul Baptist Church 1309 Larkin St
St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church 2715 Horsepen Creek Rd
Triad Adult and Pediatric Medicine 1002 South Eugene St
Triad Clinical Trials 811 Dolley Madison
Triad Health Project 801 Summit Ave
Trinity AME Zion Church 631 East Florida St
United Way 1500 Yanceyville St
United Youth Care Foundation 1207 4th St
US Probation Officers 101 South Edgeworth St
Vandalia Presbyterian Church 101 West Vandalia Rd
Women’s Resource Center 628 Summit Ave
Youth Focus 405 Parkway Avenue A
YWCA Family Shelter 1807 Wendover Ave East

Responding to Facebook slaughter

You know, I’ve been thinking a lot in the last few days.  Having been slaughtered on Facebook for the op-ed I wrote in the News and Record on Sunday – by the way, I didn’t send in the title, “Homeless Services Don’t Belong Downtown.”  That was from the N&R.  I blogged a very similar piece the week before and titled it, “Move Homeless Services Away From Downtown?”  That’s a question, not an answer.

I want to tell y’all how I feel about homelessness overall, and give you a little more background.  A relative newcomer by some standards, I’ve learned what I’ve learned since February, 2013.  I’ve cared for people deeply and done what I thought was the right thing consistently, the best way I knew how, every step, I have not faltered. I’ve done everything from coordinating food resources to fighting for more days in the shelter.  I’ve had a “Birthday Party for Everybody” and taken folks to Triad Stage to see “Snowqueen.”  I’ve raised money, blogged their personal stories, crusading for folks to see them as people and not a “social problem.” I have fought against the use of the terms “the homeless” because people become labels, and “feeding the homeless,” because you feed dogs and babies, not your friends. Monday, I spoke about homelessness and how folks can help to a group at a law firm. This morning, I’ll be speaking to a garden club.  The list goes on.

Over time, I realized that what I was doing the first couple of years was not helping in any substantive way.  I was helping them survive outside, even trying to give them access to cultural things folks with resources enjoy.  I was in relationship, friendship, with many of them, but it was not helping folks’ situations to change.

So I changed my focus, started thinking about causes of folks dealing with chronic homelessness.  (Note that I’m not talking about folks who lost their job, are down on their luck, stuff like that.  According to HUD, only 4% of people who ever experience homelessness fall into the chronic category.)  Mental illness and substance abuse are the number one causes of chronic homelessness.  As long as we aren’t dealing with those two issues, we’ll just keep getting what we’ve got – and folks will just keep needing a whole lot of homeless services.  And we, as local taxpayers, are going to need to keep being able to foot the bill.

I’ve been thinking for a while now about how we get jobs in here.  I read Thomas Friedman’s November, 2016, book, “Thank You For Being Late,” that talks about how things will be solved on a local level in this century.  I’ve met with several City Council members in the last few weeks and asked them what Raleigh and Charlotte are doing that we’re not, how they are attracting jobs, how we can improve transportation, etc.  So I didn’t just start thinking about the local economy and jobs last week.

And then, whap!  I met Jerry, the guy I wrote about, who told me that having homeless services downtown affects businesses.  It had never occurred to me before that moving homeless services would even be possible.  Frankly, the effects on business and development had not crossed my mind.  I feel guilty (and stupid) saying that.  That means I’ve been considering only one group myself, for years.  That’s not okay.  I tend to fight for the underdog, but how does that work?  Don’t decisions need to consider all parties?  Isn’t success born of compromise and all voices at the table?  Asking very tough questions?

So, I’m taking a firm stand today on my question.  I do think we need to move homeless services out of the downtown business district.  Twenty years ago, when nothing much was going on downtown, it made sense for services to be there.  Today, downtown businesses and homeless services are bumping up against each other.  We need to rethink this and look at what’s workable for all parties.  We need more jobs.

Move Homeless Services Away from Downtown?

Gulp.  Okay, I’ve written some controversial stuff before, but this one will probably take the cake.

I want to tell you about a conversation I had last week.  At Monday morning breakfast – in case you don’t know, my little group of volunteers serves at 7:15am smack dab in the middle of downtown Greensboro, a very visible location.  Most of the time, I don’t actually serve food.  I spend my time mingling.  That way, I have time to talk to people, hug them, and mostly listen to them.  That’s one of the things folks need most in these kinds of circumstances.

If there is someone new, I generally take a couple of minutes to see what’s going on with him or her.  Last Monday, there was a new guy with salt and pepper hair and clear, blue eyes.  We struck up a conversation.

Standing there in my breakfast-serving chicken hat, I said, “Hey, man!  What’s going on?  Are you new in town?”

“Yeah, my name is Jerry.”

I said, “What brings you to Greensboro?  Where did you move here from?”

Jerry responded, “I’m here looking for work.  Came from Raleigh.  Couldn’t find a job there, so thought I’d try Greensboro.  I’m originally from Charlotte.”

“So you’re traveling around?”

Jerry said, “Yeah, I’ve been all over.”

I asked, “Oh, yeah?  Are you living outside or do you have a place?”

Jerry said, “I’m outside right now, but I won’t be as soon as I can find a job.”

I said, “Have you lived outside in other cities?”

Jerry responded, “Yeah, off and on when there’s no work.”

Always curious, next I said, “Tell me about homelessness in other cities.  How is it?  What goes on?”

Jerry had a lot to say about this.  Here’s what he said: “There are homeless people everywhere, but it’s better to be homeless some places than others.  A place you don’t want to be homeless is Columbia, South Carolina.  You know what they do over there?  They have a loitering law.  If you’re caught homeless inside the city limits, the first time, they lock you up overnight.  The second time, they take you to the county line, drop you off and tell you never to come back.  You should see Nashville, Tennessee.  It’s overrun with homeless people.”

Then he rattled off the top five cities in the nation for homeless people, New York, Los Angeles, etc, but I can’t remember what they were.

I said, “How is it in Raleigh?”

Jerry said, “Not bad, but I couldn’t find a job.  They’re doing something new over there, trying to deal with it.  They’re doing homeless services away from downtown, you know, because it affects business.”

I responded, “You think having homeless people downtown affects business?”

Jerry said, “Well, yeah.  Of course it does.  So Raleigh decided they would centralize everything a couple of miles from downtown.”

I said, “You think that’s okay?’

Nodding his head, Jerry said, “Yeah, I think it’s a pretty good idea.  I don’t think things should be anything close to how they do it in Columbia, but I think Raleigh has a pretty good compromise.  Everybody needs a job.  If it brings more jobs, yeah.”

We were standing near the Monday breakfast “seconds line,” where folks line up to go through again if we have food left.  Six or eight people were listening, so I formed a focus group of sorts, right there on the sidewalk, asking people what they thought.

I asked a general question, “If locating homeless services away from downtown, say, over by DSS (Department of Social Services on Maple Street – everybody knows where it is), would get more businesses to come to Greensboro and create more jobs, would y’all be in favor of that?”

Several people nodded in agreement.  We chatted about it for a while.  I said maybe we could have a kitchen where all the groups that provide meals could serve food. People particularly liked that idea.  (I didn’t say this, but thought later that we should have plenty of computer terminals there too, so folks wouldn’t have to use the Central library across from the Children’s Museum.)

I said, “Okay, if ya’ll think this is a good idea, we need to tell City Council.  That’s who sets the policies and makes those kinds of decisions.  It would take some doing to move something like this forward.  What if we all go to the Council meeting and tell them we’d be okay with that?  That we want to see Greensboro do well economically.  That what everybody needs the most is a job.  What do y’all think?”

Jerry spoke first, “When?  I’ll be first in line.  We need jobs.”

I said the next Council meeting is not for a couple of weeks, and explained what it’s like to speak from the floor, that everyone can speak for three minutes, etc.  Folks looked a little uncomfortable with that, like many people do with public speaking.  My friend, Dallas, spoke up, with his wide smile, “No!  I’m not speaking at no City Council meeting!  No!”  And he shook his head.  I love Dallas.  Great guy.

So our little focus group agreed to talk more tomorrow about the possibility of going together to the Council meeting.  I’m guessing there will have been talk about this subject in the homeless community this week.  I can’t wait to hear all about it.

I do think this is a conversation that needs to move forward in Greensboro.   When people have jobs, we all do better.  I took time to check out what’s going on in Raleigh.  Raleigh solution to homeless services

Maybe it’s time for Greensboro to compromise.  And stop cutting off its nose to spite its face.