Nonprofit renovates housing for homeless

Emily Harkins Norris (left) and Karen Britton have managed and performed renovations of all the units that are having work done to them.

Nonprofit renovates housing for homeless
August 05
13:39 2020

As affordable housing around the county continues to dwindle, it is becoming more difficult to find than in years past. To help combat this issue, City with Dwellings (CWD), in collaboration with other nonprofits, have begun renovating housing in the city for homeless individuals at high risk for COVID-19.

CWD, their collaborators and volunteers, are renovating dilapidated housing on Inverness Street here in the city. The group is working on 12 units to be move-in ready by the end of August.  The volunteers have been putting in countless hours of backbreaking work to have the units ready by the expected finish date.

“It’s a culmination of a collaborative project that is intended to get folks who are medically fragile related to COVID and who are homeless, out of the shelters where that kind of congregate setting is difficult for maintaining safe spacing, and to get folks off of the street,” said Russ May, co-founder of CWD.  

May says that Derwin Montgomery, executive director of the Bethesda Center, was one of the major contributors to putting the initiative together. CWD first partnered with several organizations to open a “hotel” to give those who are homeless and more susceptible to the virus a place to stay to lower their risk of infection. The hotel opened in late April, but CWD soon realized that more permanent housing was needed.

“As the understanding has evolved, it was matched by the urgency to get these people housed,” May said. “The urgency to get them housed has been really carried by the housing case managers for these 60 individuals who are guests at this hotel.”

May says the case managers work very hard to get housing for these individuals in the city.  Unfortunately, there is not enough affordable housing to go around for everyone in need, he said.  

“Affordable housing is a big challenge right now, so what needed to happen was at some of these income-based housing locations, we had to come on site with volunteer support and work to get the units ready to be occupied.”

According to May, CWD has always had a focus on assisting homeless individuals with finding housing and maintaining a relationship throughout that process. CWD has run the county’s winter overflow shelter for seven years and used that momentum to expand their focus to include outreach and diversion.

Nonprofit organizations and volunteers have been working tirelessly for weeks fixing a multitude of issues these units were suffering from. Emily Harkins Norris, mission developer for CWD, is one of the individuals overseeing the work needed and performed for each unit.

“This is kind of the exclamation mark on the whole project because if we aren’t moving our folks to housing, to me it feels like what we have done at the hotel is a wash,” said Norris. “The first goal is to protect our folks from COVID and also we had a unique position where we had our folks right there where we could do our wraparound care and walk with them through the process, and this is really the end piece of that.”

Norris stated that the apartment manager and owner of the property on Inverness Street have been very accommodating since there is such a great need for housing. They have been working on things ranging from painting all the way to fixing the foundation on certain units.

“It’s been amazing with the folks that have come out to help,” Norris continued. 

The group has people coming from all walks of life to come to volunteer. Norris said they also have people coming from all over the Triad to lend a helping hand and even a group from Raleigh will be coming later this week.

“The greatest part of our volunteers is not only do they show up all the time, they generously donate on site with the things we need,” said Karen Britton, landlord engagement specialist with United Way. “All of this stuff can’t be done by volunteers; we need professionals to finish some projects.”

Through her job at United Way, Britton has formed relationships with landlords all over the city in an attempt to find housing for those in need. Finding the units they are currently renovating was very timely, she said.

“It’s my job to build and maintain relationships with landlords all over town,” said Britton. “We are getting priced and squeezed out of the city, so there’s only a few locations that will accept our clients with housing vouchers and this is one of the few.

“Sharon is a great property manager, so we can put people in here that other locations wouldn’t take, and she will work with them. It creates a community for them, so that we are not just dropping them off and leaving them alone.”

Both Britton and Norris said they enjoy the process of seeing the transformation of these properties from unlivable to a place where people will actually call home.

“Every day there is that moment where we are like ‘My God, this is actually what we are called to do, like how lucky are we that we get to show up every day and see this happening’,” said Norris. “I will start my day usually asking the Lord for this thing or this person and by noon that person or thing has shown up and that is not an exaggeration.

“It is almost like a ‘pinch me’ situation, because you actually get to see community getting built. And in our world right now with so many lines being drawn everywhere, this is something that is uniting people.”

For more information on the project, or if you wish to donate time or funding, please call Emily Harkins Norris at or call at 336-971-4897.

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Timothy Ramsey

Timothy Ramsey

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