Seeking Shelter

The following articles are part of my ongoing coverage of homelessness in Moore County. I began reporting on the issue in January 2019 with a story that revealed the county’s unsheltered residents were not being included in the “Point in Time” count, an annual survey of homeless populations across the U.S. That article prompted a group of concerned citizens to launch a nonprofit that will administer the county’s first official “Point in Time” count.

Homeless Not Being Counted in Moore County

Tent at an encampment for the homeless in Aberdeen. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

This article first appeared in The Pilot on Feb. 1, 2019.

ABERDEEN, N.C. – Rich Moyer was sleeping in the woods when the temperature slid to 20 degrees early Thursday. Darrius Jones was resting under a blanket in the breezeway of a shopping plaza.

The men, like other unsheltered people across the Sandhills, were overlooked during last year’s “Point in Time” count, a single-day survey designed to provide a statistically reliable snapshot of homeless populations across the U.S.

No children or adults in Moore County were found to be living in an “unsheltered situation” in the 2018 count, a conclusion at odds with the multiple encampments for the homeless in wooded areas near highways in Southern Pines and Aberdeen.

“Nobody counts the unsheltered,” said Susan Bellow, executive director of Family Promise of Moore County. “In rural areas, it’s really hard to count people because you don’t really know where they are.”

Some of the data used in the “Point in Time” count are from charities like Family Promise, which reports the number of people staying at its temporary shelter for homeless women with children. Other organizations in Moore County offer transitional housing for recovering addicts and victims of domestic violence.

But homeless people who don’t meet the criteria for those shelters are forced to find safe places to sleep outside, tucked away from view with cover from the stabbing wind.

Unofficial totals from this year’s “Point in Time” count, which was held Wednesday, are still being collected by the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness. A representative for the coalition deferred questions about the tallying process to Debbie Cole, executive director of Christians United Outreach Center in Asheboro.

Cole coordinates the count for Region 7, which includes Moore and surrounding counties. In an email, she said questions about the count should be directed to the “people directly involved in collecting those numbers” in Moore County.

“The numbers aren’t submitted to me,” Cole wrote. “They are submitted by app and Excel spreadsheet to the NCCEH, and some are still being tallied.”

Writing in a follow-up email, Cole said she was not sure if anyone actually conducted a count of unsheltered people in Moore County. There was, she wrote, “conversation from a couple of agencies in hopes it would happen.”

Tent Cities

While the count was underway, Moyer was using a donated space heater to warm his tent in the woods. His encampment, nestled in a thicket near a small shopping plaza off U.S. 1, is powered by donated propane tanks.

Moyer said he became homeless after his wife died. A native of Pennsylvania, he has a high tolerance for cold weather.

People in the community have been “very generous,” Moyer said. He and his fellow campers receive meals from the nearby food bank.

Moyer said he’s constantly reminding the younger members of the encampment to clean up after they eat. He worries the whole group will be kicked out if litter begins accumulating on the property.

“We try to help each other,” he said. “We don’t bother anybody.”

About a dozen people live in the encampment, according to Moyer. The property can be reached from a clearing behind the Martial Arts Academy of Southern Pines.

“We see the folks a lot, but they’ve never been a problem to us or anything like that,” said Dan Dorton, an instructor at the academy. “Anytime I’ve ever talked to them, they’ve been very respectful.”

Before Moyer migrated to the woods, he stayed in a tent under a water tower. He said there’s another encampment behind Staples in Aberdeen, but he doesn’t know how many people live there.

Moyer said he often thinks about Nancy Serravalle, a Connecticut transplant who also wound up shelterless in Moore County. He was with her on the night she died.

Serravalle, 54, was attempting to cross U.S. 1 when she was struck by a tractor-trailer in November. The impact threw her body into a Honda CRV that was traveling in the opposite lane. She was pronounced dead later that night at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst.

Pastors from local churches sometimes give sermons at the encampment. Wrapped in a jacket, sweater and two hooded sweatshirts on Thursday morning, Moyer said he found it difficult to believe in God.

Familiar Faces

Not all of Moore County’s unsheltered residents live in hidden encampments. Jones is one of several homeless men who have become fixtures at the stores and restaurants dotting the same highway where Serravalle was killed.

Jones is arguably the area’s most well-known homeless person. He is sometimes called the “bag man,” a reference to his ever-present collection of plastic grocery bags.

It is not difficult to find Jones, who often sleeps in front of the BB&T at the corner of Johnson Street or beneath the awning of Harris-Teeter. When he has the money, he might rent a room at one of the cheaper hotels on North Sandhills Boulevard.

But on the night of the “Point in Time” count, Jones slept in a lawn chair near the sliding-door entrance of Food Lion in Aberdeen. His face and body were covered by a padded blanket.

Updates about Jones are regularly shared by members of the Facebook group Moore County Ask a Neighbor. In a thread from 2018, a user named Meghan Ford wrote that Jones was once “beaten” and is reluctant to accept meals from strangers because he “feels like he was poisoned” in the past by donated food.

“The first time I saw him, I cried because it reminded me of myself when me and my kids were homeless,” Ford wrote.

The North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness defines “unsheltered” as any person sleeping in “a place not meant for human habitation.” Cars, park benches, abandoned buildings, streets and encampments are all considered uninhabitable places by the coalition.

According to the coalition’s website, information from the “Point in Time” count is used to “plan local homeless assistance systems, to tailor programs to meet existing needs and to raise public awareness of homelessness.”

Fritz Healy, a local businessman, sought permission in 2015 to build a shelter for the county’s general homeless population, a group that would include people like Jones and Moyer. After months of discussion and public debate, the Southern Pines Town Council voted to allow homeless shelters in the town’s business district.

But the project failed to move forward because Healy was unable to find anyone willing to rent out a suitable building in the approved district. Since then, there have been no major efforts to build a homeless shelter that is open to unmarried men in the Sandhills.

Citizens Seeking Solutions for Unsheltered Residents

The Place of Grace homeless shelter in Rockingham during Hurricane Florence in September 2018. (Richmond Daily Journal photograph used with permission from Champion Media)

This article first appeared in The Pilot on Feb. 15, 2019.

Before Gary Richardson became a pastor, he was a rudderless young man without a fixed address. Struggles with depression and drug addiction had reduced him to living in a “crack house in Ellerbe,” he said.

Richardson is now CEO of New Life Christian Ministries of the Carolinas, a Rockingham religious organization that recently turned a vacant middle school into a haven for unsheltered people in Richmond County.

The project is being considered as a potential model for a newly formed committee that hopes to address homelessness in Moore County, where efforts to open a shelter have repeatedly foundered.

Cliff Brown, a retired sergeant with the state Department of Corrections and former president of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, launched the committee after The Pilot published an article earlier this month about the county’s unsheltered population. The story “stirred the pot,” Brown said.

More than 50 people attended the committee’s second meeting on Tuesday in Aberdeen. The group invited Richardson to give a presentation about Place of Grace, the shelter he opened after overcoming some of the challenges that derailed similar proposals in Moore County.

Power of Ministry

For over 20 years, the Baker House was the only homeless shelter in Richmond County. When the facility was destroyed by a fire in 2013, the county’s homeless population fanned out to encampments.

Several nonprofits “rose up and tried to do different things” to replace the facility, Richardson said, but none were successful.

“We had about 40 people in tents living behind our church,” he said. “They didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

An opportunity surfaced two years ago after the Richmond County Board of Education closed Rohanen Middle School. County commissioners bought the campus for $100 in June 2018.

Richardson believed the schoolhouse, which already boasted a large kitchen and other amenities, could be easily transformed into a homeless shelter. He negotiated a trade with the county, offering 26 acres of land he owned in exchange for the 11-acre parcel containing the school.

Richmond commissioners approved the deal in July. Because Place of Grace is overseen by a religious organization, Richardson said he was able to clear many of the hurdles traditional nonprofits face when trying to open homeless shelters.

“From a nonprofit standpoint, you will have to deal with your zoning boards and your county commissioners, you will have to get permissions and permits,” he said. “As a church, however, you fall under ministry — and the state can’t tell you what to do when it comes to ministry.”

‘Swimming Uphill’

If Richardson’s story was meant to help the committee envision a possible path forward, Fritz Healy presented the group with a cautionary tale.

Healy is the owner of Healy Wholesale, a beer and wine distribution company based in Fayetteville. He sought permission in 2015 to open a privately funded shelter in Southern Pines. But the project, he said, repeatedly slammed against the same bureaucratic roadblocks Richardson managed to avoid.

“I’m probably the foremost authority on the problems you’re going to bump into,” Healy said during the meeting. “I went five times in front of city hall to beg (the council) to let me use my own money to open a homeless shelter, and I got rejected like seven times.”

Healy and his wife had established a foundation to open a shelter that would serve homeless men. While there are some temporary shelters and transitional housing programs available to homeless people in the Sandhills, those opportunities are limited to women and their children.

The proposed shelter was met with resistance from officials like Southern Pines Police Chief Bob Temme, who advised the council that a shelter could “create a large homeless population that does not currently exist.” Temme told council members the facility would sap time and energy from local law enforcement.

After months of discussion and public debate, the council voted to allow homeless shelters in the town’s general business district. Still, it wasn’t the decisive victory Healy had hoped for.

He has been unable to find anyone willing to rent out a suitable building in the approved district. Healy said he even offered a large sum of money to a church with space in the district, but the church turned down his offer.

“It was swimming uphill,” he said.

Next Steps

Jon Rachels, a musician and community organizer who is involved with the committee, said homelessness is often “swept under the rug“ in Moore County.

“We don’t want outside people knowing that we have these issues, but we do.”

Rachels is the director of Operation AWOL, a nonprofit created in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence to help displaced families in Vass. The storm caused extensive flooding in the small community, where many residents live below the poverty line.

“Moore County is a special type of county because our median income is so high, but that’s not a real number,” he said. “We have some of the poorest, most destitute people you’ve ever seen in your life.”

It is difficult to know the true extent of homelessness in Moore County. The county’s unsheltered residents were not tallied during last year’s “Point in Time” count, an annual survey designed to provide a statistical snapshot of homeless populations across the U.S.

Multiple encampments for the homeless exist in wooded areas throughout the county, but there has been no formal effort to count the people living in them.

Brown hopes the committee will eventually serve as a “clearing house” for charities and churches that offer resources for the homeless. But before that can happen, he said the group must settle on an official name and appoint a board of directors.

“We’ve got to formalize who we are and what we’re working toward,” he said.

Effort to Address Homelessness Gathers Steam 

Cliff Brown, founder and director of TEAM Workz. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

This article first appeared in The Pilot on May. 16, 2019.

After months of legal maneuvering, an organization has launched to address homelessness in Moore County.

The nonprofit TEAM Workz — the first part of the name is an acronym for Together Everyone Accomplishes More — was founded by Cliff Brown, a retired sergeant with the state Department of Corrections and former president of the North Carolina State Employees Association. Brown said The Pilot’s report on local homeless encampments stirred interest in the plight of unsheltered residents, prompting him to convene a series of community meetings that led to the formation of TEAM Workz.

One of those meetings was attended by Fritz Healy, a beer wholesaler who in 2015 tried unsuccessfully to create a homeless shelter in Southern Pines. Healy wanted to open Moore County’s first facility for homeless men, but the privately funded project was met with resistance from local officials.

Following months of public debate, the Southern Pines Town Council voted to allow homeless shelters in the town’s general business district. It was a hollow victory for Healy, who was unable to find anyone willing to rent out a suitable building in the authorized area.

The Gem Foundation, a nonprofit he established to run the shelter before the project foundered, had been dormant for years when Healy offered to donate the foundation’s bylaws and other assets to Brown’s organization. Sharlene Gilmer Anderson, a Pinehurst lawyer, volunteered to orchestrate the transfer, which allowed TEAM Workz to secure its nonprofit status sooner than had it gone through the application process.

A website,, was created by Oakland eMedia of West End. Novae Design Group, a Southern Pines business, designed the organization’s logo.

Brown attended grant-writing workshops at Richmond Community College and began soliciting support from officials like Moore County Sheriff Ronnie Fields, who said Wednesday that his agency is committed to “helping in any way we can.”

TEAM Workz must now install a board of directors, a legal requirement of the organization’s donated bylaws. Brown said David Bruton, a retired pediatrician who co-founded the Moore Free and Charitable Clinic, and Tony Price, the clinic’s longtime CEO, have both agreed to serve on the board.

“We’ve cleared the hurdles that held us back from being operational,” Brown said. “Now we can open a bank account, get donations in and start actually doing things for people.”

During a meeting Tuesday at Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Aberdeen, members of the organization’s advisory board discussed projects that will be tackled by subcommittees in the coming months. One of these teams is expected to recruit volunteers to conduct next year’s “Point in Time” count, an undertaking that could generate valuable data for nonprofits and government agencies in the Sandhills.

Held on a single evening every January, the “Point in Time” count is designed to provide a statistically reliable snapshot of homeless populations across the U.S. But a Pilot investigation found that unsheltered people are not being tallied in Moore County, where encampments for the homeless are active in wooded areas in Southern Pines, Aberdeen and Pinehurst.

Because no effort has been made to determine how many unsheltered residents are living here, there is no way of knowing the true size of the county’s homeless population. Findings from the “Point in Time” count could be used to bolster requests for grant funding and services that benefit the homeless.

One of Brown’s long-range goals is to establish a traditional homeless shelter in Moore County. While the county is home to a handful of transitional housing programs, they only accept single mothers or women recovering from substance abuse.

Brown was to visit the Place of Grace homeless shelter in Rockingham on Friday with Jon Rachels, a community organizer who serves on the TEAM Workz advisory committee, and Todd Maness of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office. They are researching the facility, a repurposed middle school, as a potential model for Moore County.

Homeless Campers Removed From Aberdeen Woods

The King James version of the Bible sits on a lawn chair in an Aberdeen homeless encampment on May 25, 2019. (Photograph by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

This article first appeared in The Pilot on May 28, 2019.

Nicholas Cowley was hauling his possessions from the woods when the temperature shot to 95 degrees on Saturday, but he couldn’t let the heat slow him down.

Police had imposed a deadline for Cowley and the other members of a homeless encampment behind Center Park shopping plaza in Aberdeen. They were given 24 hours to tear down their tents and vacate the woods.

Paul Sabiston, town manager for Aberdeen, said the campers were barred Friday at the request of an attorney for Overton Body Shop, the Southern Pines business that owns the land. If they return, the six campers banned from the site could be charged with trespassing.

Cowley said he doesn’t know why Overton decided to kick out the group, which included a father and son who had lived in the thicket for three years.

“We come down here to sleep at night,” Cowley said. “We don’t bother anybody and we keep it clean.”

But in a joint statement provided to The Pilot on Tuesday, the owners of Overton Body Shop claimed the property “was littered with garbage, debris of all kinds and human waste.”

“These conditions represent a potentially environmental hazard as well as a health hazard to our employees and customers,” the owners wrote. “Additionally, we have had several instances of unprovoked aggression from individuals trespassing on this property towards our staff. In some cases, even our customers were accosted.

“Over the course of the last several years we attempted to peacefully encourage these trespassers to vacate the property by asking them to leave in person and posting signage. Unfortunately, the property continues to be occupied by some individuals and because we cannot identify who remains on the property, and who is responsible for the aggressive behavior, Overton Body Shop contacted authorities and took the appropriate and legal measures to have these trespassers removed from the property.”

‘Convenient Place’

Brian, who declined to share his last name with a reporter, moved to the encampment a few months ago.

He said he has a job and is trying to save up enough money to afford the deposit on an apartment. Brian could stay at a hotel, but he said the cost of renting a room every night would leave him unable to set any money aside.

Though far from cozy, the encampment had a makeshift shower and a large canopy that sheltered campers from the rain. It was a short walk from resources like the Sandhills food bank.

“This place was just really convenient,” Brian said. “We had water and (access to) places where we could charge our phones.”

Brian and his 19-year-old son were photographed by police when the barring notices were served. He said law enforcers had known about the encampment for some time.

“They never had a problem with us,” he said, adding that he is not bitter with police. “They’ve got a job to do, and they were just fulfilling their job.”

Brian contends that members of the encampment did not allow litter to accumulate in the woods. He said he was unaware of any campers acting aggressively toward Overton’s employees or customers.

“It’s not like we were going over there and vandalizing their cars or nothing,” he said, gesturing in the direction of the vehicle repair shop. “The woods ain’t been burned down and we weren’t trashing the property. People out here are just trying to survive.”

Brian said the group has found a new campsite, but he feared they would be kicked out again if he shared the location.

Seeking Shelter

Cliff Brown is the director of TEAM Workz, a nonprofit launched this year to address homelessness in Moore County. He said the organization would have tried to relocate the campers had it been made aware of Overton’s decision.

“We may have been able to help prepare (the campers) and provide transportation,” he said.

Brown, a retired sergeant with the state Department of Corrections and a former president of the North Carolina State Employees Association, has credited The Pilot’s recent coverage of homelessness with stirring interest in the plight of unsheltered residents, which prompted him to convene the series of community meetings that led to the formation of TEAM Workz.

The organization hopes to eventually build a homeless shelter in Moore County. While the county is home to a handful of transitional housing programs, they accept only single mothers and women recovering from substance abuse.

With few other options at their disposal, many of the county’s homeless men are forced to sleep in the woods. Five of the six people banned from the encampment on Friday are men.

Other homeless encampments have been found in wooded areas behind Flowland Counter Culture Outlet and Pinehurst Senior Apartments. But because unsheltered residents were not tallied as part of this year’s “Point in Time” count, it is difficult to know the true extent of homelessness in Moore County.

Members of TEAM Workz are researching Place of Grace in Rockingham as a potential model for the area. That shelter was created after officials in Richmond County agreed to give a vacant middle school to a local church in exchange for land.

Moving Out

When The Pilot first reported on the Aberdeen encampment in January, people were using donated space heaters to warm their tents.

Rich Moyer, a homeless widower from Pennsylvania, was among the 12 campers who had taken refuge in the woods at the time. He was with Nancy Serravalle, a Connecticut transplant who also lived in the encampment, on the night she was fatally struck by vehicles while attempting to cross U.S. 15-501 in November.

Moyer said local churches had dropped off food and held worship services at the encampment. Reflecting on the deaths of Serravalle and his wife, he told a reporter it was difficult to believe in God.

Cowley said someone offered Moyer a place to stay after reading about him in The Pilot. While churches have continued to visit the encampment, Cowley doesn’t know how they will find the group now.