Story & photos by Emily Currie, Staff Writer
A squat, industrial building sits among the offices and businesses in downtown Greensboro. The interior of this building does not boast any fancy drapes or slick furnishings. It is a vast, open space filled with used desks and tables where people work, read and socialize. There is no television or wall divides; between using the computers, reading, and writing, the individuals here are constantly engaging with one another.
Welcome to the Interactive Resource Center. It only takes a few moments in this facility to realize that this is a special space which offers much for those navigating homelessness.
The IRC, also known as the Greensboro Day Center, serves about 200 people per day and has served over 6,000 individuals since it opened in 2009. The Center lends support to approximately 200 new people each month, a figure that has been steadily rising in the past year.
The walls of the IRC are lined with what appears to be professional artwork. A closer look reveals that the art is the work of the “guests,” the name given to the homeless people using the IRC.
The IRC offers hope to guests in a variety of forms. Nurses specializing in mental health and substance abuse are on the staff; employment specialists and housing coordinators provide further support. The Center also has a computer lab, a laundry room, and a barber shop/hair salon.
The IRC is a fairly new organization, explained Liz Seymour, the Center’s director. In 2008, city council members and county commissioners were invited to listen to homeless individuals explain the difficulties they faced in Greensboro. The conversation turned to the fact that individuals needed somewhere to go during the day.
A task force was put together, with which many homeless individuals became involved.
“We found rooms at Bessemer United Methodist Church and people cleaned and painted (the rooms), put in a washer, dryer and shower,” said Seymour. “We were only going to stay open for the winter and go back to planning, but (during) the winter this building was donated (to us).”
One aspect of the IRC is its bike program, called Changing Gears. To get a bike from this program, a guest has to complete an intake interview, go through safety training, and buy a helmet, lock and a light. Guests can get around quicker on a bike to look for work. It also allows them to have greater independence and save money that would usually go toward public transportation costs.
Will Howard, employment specialist manager, occasionally gives bikes to children of housed parents to take home as an incentive for behaving.
“I get a lot of women that will come into the (computer) lab and will try to work on a resume or an application and the kids will just tear up the place,” said Howard. “And I can always say to the little kids, if you behave I’ll give you a bicycle and I swear you’ve never seen anything that works like this.”
“The bikes have made the computer lab the favorite place (for kids) to go. But the kids don’t realize the seriousness of the mother finding a job,” said Howard.
As the weather begins to grow colder, Howard is preparing to take 12 sleeping bags, two tents and 86 blankets out to people sleeping outside. The IRC has given blankets out throughout the winter months.
“A blanket is the most important thing out there for somebody that’s staying outside,” Howard said.
Aside from collecting materials such as food and blankets, many volunteer opportunities exist at the Center. The IRC is always looking for volunteer barbers, hair stylists, computer lab assistants and others to come in and interact with the guests and help them fill out applications or compose a resume. Volunteers also can come in and do an art project or start a chess club, as there are many guests that play chess. Creativity and extended interaction are highly encouraged.
“(Besides) the value of doing the art, working in the garden or working on the bikes, it’s a way to really build community and build relationships across a lot of lines,” said Seymour. “You’re sitting there doing stuff and we get to develop relationships that aren’t about ‘you’re homeless and I’m not.’”
In the words of Jenny Hudson, former guest and now volunteer at the IRC: “Just because you’re homeless, doesn’t mean you’re helpless.”