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The Daily Tar Heel

A Roof Over Chapel Hill's Poverty

People are congregating outside, talking and smoking. A small crowd sits in the lounge, watching the evening news and waiting for a receptionist to allow more people to file into the small dining room. The Inter-Faith Council Community House serves three hot meals a day, 365 days a year, and offers temporary lodging for at least 56 people nightly.

Tonight, the shelter's menu consists of beef pasta, collard greens, salad, peaches and a pastry along with a choice of water or hot chocolate to drink. Some eat alone. Others -- the regulars -- congregate together and discuss their days.

Donald, wearing an old jacket, blue jeans and a skull cap, sits alone and eats quietly.

Forty-two years old, he grew up in New York City and moved to Raleigh in 1997 to be closer to his mother. Donald said that when he was 19, he contracted HIV. He says doctors have told him that being homeless likely will affect his immune system. But Donald points out that his circumstances are not his choice, adding that he believes he is in good health in spite of his lifestyle.

Since moving to the area, Donald has held a few jobs but has mainly spent his time in homeless shelters throughout the Triangle. "After a while, it doesn't get hard," Donald says in a raspy New York accent. "It gets normal -- like, this is just the way it is. But I know -- putting it in perspective -- that this is not the way it is. But after a while, you just think this is the way it's supposed to be -- this is how I'm supposed to live."

Donald moved to Chapel Hill from Raleigh several weeks ago, hoping there would be more opportunities for him to find work and receive medical care at UNC Hospitals. Donald has been staying at the IFC shelter for several weeks. "Man, but it starts to smell," he says, laughing. "Especially once people take off their shoes. You'll get used to it. But once you walk outside you'll realize how bad it smells in here."

But Donald recently was given a bed in the upstairs part of the shelter, which is reserved for more permanent residents.

The IFC shelter has 56 beds that people are given depending on their situation. If temperatures drop below 40 degrees, the shelter officials will allow people to sleep on the floor in the lounge and the dining area on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"It's like I took one step, and they took two steps, and that made me feel really good," Donald says, referring to the volunteers who offered him a spot upstairs that he thinks will help him get back on his feet. "They gave me a bed, even though I'm on the top bunk and the guy below me stinks."

There is an eclectic bunch of people at the shelter this Friday night -- young and old, men and women, black, white, Hispanic and Asian. Conversations range from theology to the effects of drug use.

Like a family, people ask one another about how their days were and what their plans are for the next day. After dinner, everyone stands around outside talking and smoking cigarettes. Eight o'clock is curfew and the point at which IFC volunteers will announce who can stay the night and who will have to leave.

Because the temperature is below 40 degrees, floor space will be available.

A list had been placed on a bulletin board that morning for people who wished to be given floor space to sign. A receptionist begins reading off names, and it seems as though there will be room for everyone who has signed the list. After each name is called, people go upstairs to a crowded laundry room and are issued a mat, comforter and sheet for the night.

A tall, skinny man who carries a cane sets his bedding and belongings in the corner of what is the lounge during the day. He walks over to the bookshelf and retrieves an old Sony radio so he can listen to his headphones as he goes to sleep. The man attaches a coat hanger to the radio for better reception.

"It's really the only way I can mellow out," he says. "I mainly like hard rock and heavy metal -- you know, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Cinderella, Van Halen."

By 8:15 p.m., the lights are out and people begin going to sleep.

The sounds of a Friday night college town resonate in the background -- cars honking, people yelling. With people snoring, headphones blaring and no pillow to soften the hard white tile floor, sleeping becomes increasingly difficult.

At 5 a.m., after the people on the floor catch a few hours of light and uncomfortable sleep, someone turns on the fluorescent lights and says it is time to wake up. People begin methodically folding their blankets and returning them to the laundry room upstairs.

Then, everyone gathers in the lounge, groggy from the early morning rise. Most try to go back to sleep. Some flip through the old issues of National Geographic that are lying around in the lounge.

The next night's temperature is already on the minds of many because the temperature will determine where they will be able to sleep -- on the floor in the shelter, in an abandoned car or in the bushes somewhere nearby. "It's supposed to be 43 degrees tonight," one guy says after awhile. "You know what that means. No floor space."

"Ain't no big deal," says another. "One night ain't going to kill nobody."

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By 7 a.m., breakfast is ready. Scrambled eggs, toast, potatoes and grits are served. People discuss their plans for the day. "I might go to the library," a guy across the table says. "Nothing much to do today -- it's Saturday."

Someone else is going to work at the Top of Lenoir.

The crowded dining room empties around 8 a.m. as people begin to go about their days, but most reassemble at the IFC in the evening.

Around dinnertime, Donald says he spent his day at University Mall buying some toiletries and applying for a job.

He comments on how much he has been able to use the recently implemented fare-free busing in Chapel Hill. "Whoever thought of that was a genius. I rode down to Carrboro five times the other day -- just because I could," he says.

Donald, like many at the shelter, is hopeful that he can get back on his feet, although he admits that he is battling drug and alcohol problems. "I have to take it one day at a time and focus on what I have to do."

Standing just outside the shelter's door, as dusk descends on another day of attempting a small step toward self-sufficiency, Donald shakes his head. "Hard is not the word," he says. "The word is just survival."

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