On a recent Saturday morning, more than 80 people line up at the southern edge of Raleigh's Moore Square. Some are regulars; others are just passing through. They have all come for sausage biscuits and fresh coffee, distributed by Love Wins Ministries. Love Wins has been feeding the homeless here twice a week for the last seven years.
The biscuits vanish within minutes, but people linger for a chance to speak with the Rev. Hugh Hollowell, a Mennonite minister and director of Love Wins. The former Memphis salesman founded the endeavor in 2007. Besides offering fellowship, Love Wins operates a hospitality house on Jones Street. "You don't have to be sober, you don't have to be in recovery," says Marc Segre, a Love Wins volunteer. "There's a lot of other places that you're blocked out of if you're not ready to follow the rules."
For some visitors, this no-judgment approach has had an impact. Hollowell recounts meeting a man named Jessie, who showed up destitute to Love Wins. Over time, he started chatting with Hollowell. Hollowell later drove him to a clinic to pick up his medications. On the forms, Jessie listed Hollowell's name as his emergency contact. Beside it, he wrote, "The only man I trust."
Hollowell helped another of his clients, Michael, secure an apartment deposit. "The most important thing we have done is be his friend," says Hollowell. "Listen to his poetry, tell jokes, laugh, cry and praise him when he succeeds."
Even though he's had a stable home for five years, Michael still comes to Moore Square to remind himself where he came from—and to check in with Hollowell. "He knows the right words to say when you're down," Michael says. "He's an encourager."
Twenty minutes down the road in Durham, the Rev. Carolyn Schuldt, executive director of Open Table Ministry, eats a breakfast of eggs, grits and coffee with homeless people at Resurrection United Methodist Church.
With degrees in social work and divinity, Schuldt shuttles "her guys" to doctor appointments and sits with them in hospital waiting rooms. She knows their medical histories and where they camp in the woods. And she helps them procure prescriptions and basic necessities, like blankets, food and clothing.
"I can't solve poverty in the world, in the United States, even in Durham," she says. "But I might be able to make it a little more tolerable for one person."
Roger "Cherokee" Phillips, who has been living in the woods on and off for a decade, says he was grateful to Schuldt for helping his girlfriend secure disability checks. "She does this with her heart," he says.
Open Table was dealt a blow in December 2012, when the city of Durham passed a restrictive ordinance on panhandling. It became illegal to fly a sign on the most profitable corners.
Until then, Open Table had never engaged in politics. But when police started giving out warnings and citationsand sometimes making arrestsSchuldt felt moved to act.
"Not all people who panhandle are homeless and not all homeless are panhandlers," she says. "Many were panhandling in order to supplement their income to be able to pay their rent. Some have lost their housing because of this."
To raise awareness, Schuldt attended town meetings and spoke at City Council work sessions. Along the way, she met Durham attorney Scott Holmes.
As a criminal defense lawyer, Scott Holmes viewed the Durham ordinance as part of a broader trend of what he terms "the criminalization of poverty." While the City Council referred to safety concerns, Holmes felt the law was meant to make the poor invisible.
"People need to ask for help, and they ought to be able to do it wherever they want," Holmes says. "And they ought to get help."
With news from Schuldt about each new citation and arrest, Holmes began collecting all the cases and postponing their court dates. Over several months, he built a critical mass of citations. The issue "became visible because they were all getting set on one date," explains Holmes.
Meanwhile, community members were collaborating to draft a "more compassionate, more reasonable" ordinance, says Schuldt. Schuldt and Holmes were invited to serve on a subcommittee of the Durham Homeless Services Advisory Committee. The subcommittee presented a revised ordinance to the City Council, but it hasn't yet been approved.
While the ordinance remains in limbo, Holmes' citation work has yielded results. Between October and December 2013, Judge Marcia Morey dismissed more than 60 charges, according to Holmes.
Representing the panhandlers is only a small slice of Holmes' work. An attorney at Brock & Meece, he works on first-degree murder cases, charges against Moral Monday protesters and incidents of racial profiling. He represents the family of Jose Ocampo, who was killed by a Durham police officer last summer.
"I am trying to experiment with a kind of community lawyering that empowers people and movements to help voices that are often hidden or suppressed," he says.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Invisible Leaders, Invisible Roads."