Heard it Here

Wake Forest Students Cover Downtown Winston-Salem

Festival of Shelters Builds Community Among Homeless

Dozens moved through the streets of downtown Winston-Salem praying “Hoshana! God save us,” as they passed out flyers calling for more public toilets, more communal housing for those with mental health diagnoses and an end to the criminalization of homelessness.

The prayer walk, the evening of Oct. 15, marked the end of the Festival of Shelters, a week-long event held in conjunction with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Rev. Russ May is a co-founder of Anthony’s Plot, the group that has held the Festival of Shelters in downtown for the past four years.

“This is about remembering what it means to seek justice for the people living on the streets in our community,” May said.

Throughout the week of Oct. 8 to Oct. 15, members of Anthony’s Plot slept alongside the homeless in cardboard boxes and tents on an empty lot on Fifth Street. Painted on the cardboard boxes were phrases meant to bring awareness to issues facing the homeless. One box said “End Homelessness w/ Homes, Not Jails.” Another said “Let us move into the house of justice and peace.”

During the day, volunteers with the Festival of Shelters offered morning prayer, hot coffee and Bible Study, then passed out sandwiches around noon. Participants shared a simple meal in the evening followed by prayer.

Mark Simons went to three meals during the week. He said that he has been without housing for a year, and expressed frustration with the local service agencies for the homeless.

“I’ve signed enough papers to walk across town on, but I still don’t have a place to live,” Simons said.

He said that he appreciated the food and fellowship provided by Festival of Shelters.

“Our main goal is to stand in solidarity with our friends on the street,” May said. “We are eating publicly, sleeping publicly, and advocating publicly.”

Although they are sleeping outside, May said that there is not much pushback from the city because it is a religious festival on private property. Centenary United Methodist Church owns the lot, which is across from the Forsyth County Central Library.

“We’re not a charity,” May said. “We don’t need more charity events or more agencies … We need communities willing to empower people living on the street.”

May said that this was the first year of the festival that city police sent homeless people who could not find other housing to the Festival of Shelters site. He said that one of those sent to the site was a woman who was seven months pregnant.

“What does it say about our community that the best we can offer a lady who is seven months pregnant is for her to sleep outside?” May asked.

May found the woman a place to stay through a connection with a local church. He said that it was an example of how connections and communities are the best ways to combat homelessness.

May said that Anthony’s Plot drew inspiration from the Festival of Shelters held by the Open Door Community, which is a Protestant Catholic Worker House serving the homeless in Metro Atlanta.

He said that at the first Festival of Shelters in October of 2011, they served food to about 250 people a night. Since then, they have scaled back, choosing to focus on building community rather than mass outreach.

This year, about seven to 12 people slept at the site each night, and they served food to about 50 each day.

Mary Ridings Guarino was a part of the original planning team for the first Festival of Shelters. The planning team consisted of Anthony’s Plot workers and people who had currently lived or previously lived on the streets.

“These people aren’t a case number,” she said. “They’re brothers and sisters in Christ.”

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