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Breaking the Stigma: Urban Ministries of Durham

A sunny capture shows the Resource Building at Urban Ministries of Durham.
This is UMD’s Resource Building, where clients connect with many of the services and programs available to them in the Durham community. (Photo courtesy of Urban Ministries of Durham)

The homeless population in Durham is made up of people from a variety of backgrounds. Notably, they might not be who or what you expect:

Undergraduate and graduate students whose funding has fallen through. Recently divorced individuals. Those who are underemployed. Those who are injured or disabled. People facing a life-threatening illness, like cancer, and unable to afford medical treatment and housing. Veterans. Families. Senior adults. Children.

Non-profit organization Urban Ministries of Durham (UMD) works hard every day to combat homelessness and the challenges it presents to the people it affects. UMD obtains some of its funding through government grants, while a lot also comes from local organizations and individual donors.

The Forest at Duke strongly believes in and supports UMD’s work and provides grant money to the organization. According to Valerie Haywood, UMD’s Clinical Director, that grant money goes a long way toward meeting the needs of clients.

Extending a helping hand

This portion of Urban Ministries’ clothing closet holds apparel for babies and small children. (Photo courtesy of Urban Ministries of Durham)

UMD case managers work closely with shelter residents to create a personalized plan to obtain permanent, affordable housing. They help some individuals overcome multiple obstacles, such as past evictions, poor credit history, long periods of joblessness, and lack of education. Case managers assist with a number of seemingly small but significant tasks, like helping clients obtain birth certificates and DMV-furnished identification cards. Individuals need these documents to locate housing, secure employment, obtain benefits, and take advantage of a vast array of other important services.

Furthermore, UMD sometimes helps clients fund their first month’s rent, deposit, or application fee. The organization has a matching program. If a client has been working, UMD will meet them halfway and pay the remaining portion of their rent or other fee.

“It’s helpful. Sometimes people need just a little bit of assistance,” Valerie explains. “$20 for an application fee may not be much for many people, but for someone who is making under $8 an hour and still trying to take care of themselves and their family, that’s an enormous amount of money. We try our best to help out with that.” Importantly, she adds, “Most of our clients are working – working very diligently to the best of their ability.”

The “little” things in life are big things

UMD case managers also provide clients with short-term bus passes when they acquire new employment. This ensures that transportation to and from their place of work isn’t a matter of concern. These bus passes provide clients with assistance until they receive their first paycheck or are otherwise able to fund their transportation independently.

Moving into housing, a pair of UMD clients share a joyous embrace. (Photo courtesy of Urban Ministries of Durham)

Language is especially important to UMD. All team members within the organization aim to be thoughtful with the words they choose. For example, they don’t use the word “handouts,” because it’s demeaning to the population they serve. Instead, they assist their clients.

“We say ‘people experiencing homelessness,’ because these aren’t homeless people,” Valerie explains. “They are people who have this experience that we hope has a short duration, one that is time-limited, one that is not prolonged.”

Challenging stereotypes

Valerie indicates that there are many common misconceptions about those facing homelessness, including how they find themselves in such challenging circumstances.

“There are numerous unforeseen and invisible blockades preventing our clients from having that one moment where things turn around. It’s very complicated, especially when they have health disparities as well,” Valerie explains. “There are many people experiencing homelessness who happen to be working full-time jobs or maybe even three part-time jobs, trying to make ends meet and keep their heads above water.”

Much more than just a warm bed

Thanks to the resources and services offered by UMD, individuals experiencing homelessness don’t have to go very far to find the things they need. UMD’s Community Shelter provides a total of 149 beds to individuals and families. That’s 81 beds for men, 30 for women, and nine family rooms with 38 beds for parents and their children. An additional 30 overflow cots are made available during instances of severe weather, including below freezing temperatures.

Volunteers at Urban Ministries of Durham prepare to serve food to clients.
Volunteers are so important to accomplishing UMD’s mission in the community. (Photo courtesy of Urban Ministries of Durham)

Once checked into the shelter, UMD clients have access to a warm bed and so much more. Hygiene products and showers, clean clothing, three meals a day, and optional spiritual and pastoral care immediately become available. According to Valerie, length of stay in the shelter is decided on a case-by-case basis; however, UMD typically gives clients a 30-day exit date. Working with their case managers, shelter residents focus on three main goals. Their priorities become creating a housing plan, developing an income strategy, and prioritizing their wellness.

In collaboration with Lincoln Community Health Center, UMD assists clients with obtaining access to free healthcare, medications, and access to specialists, as needed. UMD also has a workforce development department, which focuses on soft skills training, such as communication, organization, and punctuality, resume writing, job leads, and providing transportation to job fairs and interviews.

Focused on compassion

Simply put, this incredible organization strives to cover every facet of helping its clients overcome the hurdles of homelessness. UMD recognizes the power of a community working together. Thus, the organization collaborates with a number of local resources to meet its clients’ needs. Its network of partners includes the Lincoln Community Health Center, as well as Durham County Department of Social Services, Durham Housing Authority, and private landlords.

UMD’s holistic approach to caring for each individual it serves is a largely successful one. In fact, the organization assists some 6,000 people each year.

With a thoughtful smile, Valerie concludes, “Empathy is at the core of everything we do.”

Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

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