GREENSBORO — Outside, the rain is cold and pounding.
A clock inches toward 8:45 a.m., the time each day that guests must leave the family shelter at the YWCA, which won’t reopen until late afternoon.
A young dad — who just finished packing a day of snacks from a table where brown paper bags are laid out for families to use — has to get the last of his brood into a coat.
And that child — one of four siblings under the age of 4 — isn’t cooperating.
“No,” she says firmly, perhaps sensing the misery to come, as the family’s normal routine includes a half-mile walk to the nearest bus stop.
Cries echo down the hallway as the siblings eventually trudge like baby ducklings out the door behind the mom, who just finished her last college exam and is on winter break, and the dad, who finds activities for the children during the day.
Jan Hill, the overnight staff person, locks up behind them.
These are not her favorite moments in the 24-hour cycle of one of the state’s few homeless shelters for families.
That the families had a warm bed, place for the children to run around and free meals last night gives her some solace.
A place to stay
The YWCA shelter is a place where families are able to put their lives back on track.
It is a modest space, with its own entrance at the back of the nonprofit’s building on East Wendover Avenue, that can house about 30 people. At the moment, that’s room for seven families.
The shelter’s goal is to help homeless families develop skills to achieve financial stability, pay off debts and save enough to move into permanent housing. A case worker works with them. Closing the doors at 8:45 a.m. is a nudge to the parents, that they need to be using their time wisely, such as going out looking for jobs.
The ones who seek help here are in the growing number of families who have fallen out of the middle class because of layoffs or companies closing or underemployment; of working-class people grappling with loss of benefits or reduced hours or rising prices that give them less to live on; and of others who may work several part-time jobs while going back to school to get GEDs or training or degrees that can make the family self-sufficient again — or for the first time.
Many end up on the other end of the line at the YWCA shelter, asking if there’s any room. Families are also referred by other agencies.
Problem is, the shelter can only take in a few and the need is great. Estimates show that in Guilford County at least 70 families are on a waiting list for a shelter at any given time. In the meantime, they and those that are deemed the invisible homeless, may live in cars or hotels or sleep on the couches and floors of friends as long as they can.
“When you are living in day-to-day crisis mode, it can be hard,” shelter director and case manager Michelle Cheek said. “It’s not alleviating all of their problems, but it’s reducing their stress.”
Most shelters are built like dorms with beds for adult men and women, grouped by gender.
Here, there are three separate bedrooms on one side for families with dads and older male children. These families share a large private bathroom. The other side holds a large space divided by partitions.
There are communal showers like those in middle school gyms.
A larger space is covered with tables for meals and a play area that’s stocked with books and has mats on the floor for children.
There’s a laundry room with multiple washers and dryers.
A large pantry nearby is stocked with breakfast cereals, fruits and other items — on this day, muffins — donated by volunteers and local businesses.
During the day, children go to school while their parents work or look for jobs.
When the YWCA moved into the renovated building in 2014, there had been plans for another program to house homeless families with children here.
When that nonprofit Family Promise of Guilford County closed because it had trouble raising money, the YWCA’s executive director worked with her staff to put a shelter together and run it themselves.
The lack of shelter space for families across the country had always bothered Lindy Garnette, the nonprofit’s executive director.
“The obvious question was, ‘If they can’t do it, how do we do it?’ ” Garnette said.
But Garnette, working on faith, plowed ahead.
The YWCA program opened in July with no funding dedicated to the shelter at all. It has depended on individual donations, a handful of local churches and a few grants.
And Garnette’s sheer will.
“I’m a strong believer that when you do the right things for the right reasons, they work out,” Garnette said. “We researched it. We believe it’s necessary. And in this community, it’s not OK for 2-year-olds to be sleeping in cars.”
Garnette estimates she needs an annual operational budget of about $225,000, which includes the positions of shelter director and case manager and overnight staff manager, and a handful of other part-time positions, including a volunteer coordinator and shelter workers.
The group has raised about 65 percent of the funding for the current fiscal year.
Already, the effort has caught the attention of the respected Edward M. Armfield Sr. Foundation, which pledged $150,000 over three years.
“It’s this idea that it’s beyond a shelter,” explained Michelle Gethers-Clark, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Greensboro, which awarded the program a $25,000 Bryan Venture Grant.
Garnette, who admits waking up in the middle of the night thinking of how to write better grant applications, is awaiting word about a grant she applied for that’s normally given to Charlotte-area nonprofits. The application has crossed two big hurdles in the consideration process. Getting it would buy some time while seeking additional support locally.
“I believe people would help us if they knew,” Garnette said of growing a donor and volunteer base. “I believe people want to do the right thing, but they don’t always know how to accomplish that.”
The best option
Shortly after 3:30 p.m. on a recent day, a school bus stops and drops off two of the children living at the shelter.
The doors to the shelter won’t open for another hour and a half, so the kids climb into an aging vehicle with their mother and they drive away.
A slightly older child who got picked up from school by his mom sits with her in the car — a beat-up vehicle with a missing passenger side window now covered by a towel — until it is time to come inside.
When the doors open at 5 p.m., some of the older children come in carrying heavy backpacks and almost immediately disappear into their family’s room.
“I think it is harder on the older children,” Hill said. “They remember what it was like to live in their own home.
“They also worry that their friends will find out.”
But after living on the streets or having nowhere else to turn and empty pockets, the parents know it is their best — and only — option.
Among the families who have stayed here recently is a single mother working two part-time jobs. She came here when her youngest son was just 2 weeks old. He’s now 3 months old.
Once she can settle an old Duke Energy bill that she says someone else ran up in her name, she will be able to move into her own apartment.
Another family learned of the shelter after neighbors in an out-of-the-way cul-de-sac noticed a car idling there for hours. When the car’s dome light flipped on, children could be seen moving around inside. They called police, who called the shelter.
There’s the single dad who had been sleeping on a park bench with his 4-year-old daughter because an old eviction kept him from being able to rent again.
He recently sat at a table in front of a woman who was laid off from a full-time manufacturing job. She sees the program as a place for her to start over.
“It was comfortable and safe, and I slept so good that first night,” she said. “But I just want to find a job, find decent housing, and I can go from there.”
Some of the parents didn’t mind sharing their stories for this article, but they did not want to be identified because some people don’t know about their situation and they say it can be embarrassing, especially for their children.
In the mornings after dropping her 12-year-old son off at school, she goes straight to the unemployment office to check for jobs.
Near her, a father watches his child, who is learning to play chess.
He plays with Melanie Slack, an educator who is a part-time shelter assistant in the evening.
The man beams as the boy avoids losing a pawn.
Across the room, the father who had been sleeping on a bench with his daughter, worries about her social skills and the constant whining. He says the instability of their living situation is wearing on both of them.
“I have the utmost respect for the people living in our building right now,” Garnette said. “They are doing things I’m not sure I could do. I don’t know how to live on no money. I don’t know what to do when you have a child you can’t feed. I think that there’s a great deal of strength there.”
Dinner is at 6:30 p.m, followed by chores. Showers start at 8. Lights out at 10.
Only water is allowed in the bedrooms.
There’s a sign-up to use a donated laptop, but there’s not enough time for all the children to get a turn.
On this night, dinner consists of fried chicken, potato salad, green beans and dessert — courtesy of a local church.
After dinner there are chores that include cleaning the bathrooms and sweeping floors. While they are aimed at the parents, they often give them to their children so they have something to do.
One of the fathers admitted it can be an adjustment having to follow someone else’s rules.
“I’ll check my ego at the door,” said the man, wiping off a table, “to provide for my family.”
By 10:15 p.m., all the families have rotated through the showers and the lights are all out except for the glow of a computer screen. It comes from a dad taking practice tests to earn his GED while also taking aviation classes at the local community college.
His wife, with the kids asleep, is studying to one day design construction projects.
“We want out of poverty,” she said, almost wistfully.
While they sleep, Hill, the overnight supervisor, sends out emails in the hopes of getting gift cards and tickets to movies, sports events and other places so parents have something to do with the children over the winter break.
There is a professional distance at play here, but also a lot of heart.
Hill also spent the night organizing toy and gift donations for the children, so the parents were able to go through and pick out items to wrap and give their children on Christmas.
“We say it’s not about material things, but parents want to be able to do this for their children,” Hill said. “And we want them to make the choices.”
The showers come on at 5:30 a.m.
Hill pulls out boxes of cereal.
Over the next two hours families will pack lunches from the table of free items.
The rain is just at a drizzle for the moment.
Then a downpour follows.
A woman whose son has to use a wrench to help her start their car drives him to school.
She comes back minutes later to drive some of the others — including the family with the four little ones — to the bus stop so they won’t have to stand in the rain.
Garnette doesn’t see this taking place, but the gesture seemingly falls in line with the responsibility she says humans have to each other.
“This is very personal work for me,” Garnette said. “This is truly about grace. I didn’t deserve to be born into the family I was born into.
“I believe strongly that some folks just got dealt a bad hand. And that those who were dealt the better hand truly have a responsibility.”