North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness

Volunteer turnout far exceeds expectations

By Fred Clasen-Kelly
frkelly@charlotteobserver.com
Posted: Saturday, Jan. 03, 2009


Tom Duncan took the day off work, but faced a menacing job: Clean and paint a vacant apartment infested with cockroaches and covered in dust.

Duncan was among roughly 200 volunteers Friday helping convert an idle 12-story uptown building into a temporary homeless shelter.

“We will do what we can,” he said after pointing to food the former tenant left in the refrigerator.

Volunteers spent hours repairing, painting and cleaning to prepare the Hall House for homeless women and their children. They will continue working from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. today.

Social agencies are trying to reduce a shortage of homeless shelter beds in Charlotte. More than 5,000 people in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are homeless on a given night, but there are less than 2,000 shelter beds.

Officials were overwhelmed Friday by the public response to their pleas for volunteers. Three times as many people showed up as they expected.

The Charlotte Housing Authority, which owns the building on North Tryon Street, and other social agencies, raised more than $720,000 to re-open the former public housing apartments. Organizers plan to move in 20 families Monday, and add 20 per week until they reach 100.

Families would stay until June, when they would move into their own permanent homes. Those who remain homeless would move into other shelters.

A line to sign up to volunteer stretched across the lobby to the entry. After one hour, organizers started running out of cleaning and painting supplies.

“I am surprised how many people gave up the day after New Year's Day,” said Connie Echols, a volunteer for A Child's Place, which assists homeless children and raise money for the temporary shelter. “It's not great work. It's yucky.”

Hall House had sat empty for about a year.

Housing Authority leaders relocated nearly 200 elderly and disabled tenants last year and announced their intention to sell the building to raise money. A prospective buyer offered $15 million for the property, but the deal fell through, Echols said.

On Friday, the building's condition stood in stark contrast to its past. It opened as Hotel Barringer in 1940 and featured penthouses and a Swiss chef.

Now, mattresses, donated pillows and televisions lined the kitchen and a dining area with 20-foot high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Some of the 600-square-foot apartment units contained flooring blackened with dirt or walls covered with dust and spider webs.

Some volunteers said they couldn't paint because the walls were too dirty.

Duncan, the volunteer, and his 16-year-old son Nick came to help after he read about the effort in the newspaper.

They were sweeping when Tom Duncan pointed out what he feared were roach droppings on the kitchen counter.

“This is where we ought to be,” he said. “Otherwise, we would just be watching football.”

Dana Baker painted an apartment with her teenage daughter Lexie and niece Eva Ebert. They live in Davidson, but decided to come after Dana Baker said she heard from an acquaintance about Charlotte's problems with homelessness.

“We can't give financially, so we decided to give our time,” she said.

Ebert, 16, stopped her painting to reflect momentarily.

“I am grateful so many people still care,” she said.
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