Randy Travis, his skin tan and leathered, held up a cardboard sign, painted white with thick, black letters spelling, “Everyone needs a hand sometimes.”
Travis, 52, has held that sign on the corner of South Gregson and Chapel Hill Street since he moved to Durham in 2010, making $30 to $60 most days.
The corner is his home. He has made friends there, including officers at the police headquarters across the street, members of the Duke Memorial United Methodist Church and residents of the nearby Lyon Park neighborhood.
He sleeps four blocks away at the corner of South Duke and Morehead Avenue in a tent he sometimes shares with a family of raccoons.
Travis prefers the company of the raccoons over many humans. He lets them scratch him awake and often shares his meals with them.
“I’m a country boy, so I’d rather be by myself,” he said. “Knowing less people is better.”
Travis moved to Durham after he was released from jail in Virginia, serving five years and three months for violating probation on a breaking and entering charge. He lived in a girlfriend’s apartment financed by her disability checks until her unexpected death left him unable to cover the rent.
Since then he has been homeless.
A count last year found 354 homeless people in Durham. Many live in small “tent cities.” Groups like Housing for New Hope, a Durham nonprofit, provide outreach, offering substance-abuse services and food, but some individuals resist aid, said Desmond Frierson and Christy Thompson, the case manager and director of development for Housing for New Hope.
“We build the bonds of trust with those individuals and when they are ready to commit to the process of obtaining housing, we hope that they will reach out to Housing for New Hope for assistance,” they said in an email.
In the early 2000s, the Bush Administration announced a 10-year plan to end homelessness, shifting money previously focused on services like food pantries and shelters to providing low-income housing opportunities to homeless individuals. The City of Durham and Durham County adopted this strategy in 2006.
This housing-first model aims to reduce individuals’ time in emergency shelters to 45 days or less, and provide rehabilitation and employment services once they are permanently housed.
Travis was given a new apartment Aug. 31 in Hillsborough with the aid of Housing for New Hope. He was referred by The Freedom and Hope Center, another Durham organization.
Frierson said that to qualify for Housing for New Hope’s aid, candidates must be “chronically homeless,” having lived in a “place not meant for human habitation” or an emergency shelter for at least 12 months out of the last three years, according to the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Candidates must also be on the Durham Continuum of Care prioritization list determined by agencies that work with homeless individuals and families. According to Frierson, there are currently 109 people on the list.
Travis met both these requirements.
Housing for New Hope will pay his rent for the first year, requiring Travis to contribute 30 percent once he is employed.
Following the housing-first model, now that Travis is housed, he has begun attending vocational rehabilitation toward securing a job. He is not sure what he wants to do but hopes the social workers and employees at the rehabilitation center will help him discover his options.
Travis describes himself as a “caretaker.” He cared for his sister’s children when they were young and several girlfriends with drug addictions since then. Now that he is living alone, he said he feels bored and without purpose.
“I want to take care of people,” he said. “But I can’t do it the way I am right now.”
Dawn Bland, a resident of Lyon Park who befriended Travis, said the process of getting Travis off the streets has not ended. He often travels to Durham with his sign to visit his corner and spend the night in his old tent.
“Adjusting to isolated and lonely walls when you have been homeless in a noisy vibrant urban setting may be the hardest thing you could ever do,” Bland said. “He [feels] caged, but he has a roof.
“And here is one of the many rubs when helping a homeless person,” she continued. “You don’t just hand someone a key. It needs to be personal sometimes.”
Catherine York: firstname.lastname@example.org; @CatherineTYork
The 10th Project Connect will be held Thursday, Oct. 19, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Hargraves Community Center, 216 N. Roberson St. in Chapel Hill.
Project Connect is a one-day, one-stop service event to connect people experiencing, or at risk of experiencing, homelessness with a broad range of services including housing, employment, physical and mental health care, veterans’ and social service benefits, legal services, and more.
Volunteer time-slots are available the evening on Wednesday, Oct. 18 and on Thursday, Oct. 19 – people are encouraged to sign up online to volunteer. The Partnership is also soliciting donations to help with the event – items in the giveaway bags and food items. Find out more and sign up on the Partnership to End Homelessness website: