The Good Shepherd Center in the Wake of Florence

By Lauren Krouse

Nearly a month after Hurricane Florence, a long and quiet line of people weaves up the sidewalk and into the Good Shepherd Center, a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, and the largest provider of homeless services in the Wilmington area.

Inside, the day shelter has been transformed into a bustling giveaway center with tables full of cleaning supplies, hygiene products, housewares, bottled water, and food. People shuffle through shoulder to shoulder, dropping what they need into trash bags and totes. “We used to do a food giveaway one day a week,” the Good Shepherd Center’s Senior Development Director Jane Birnbach tells me as we nudge through. “Now, we’re up to five days a week.” Inside her office, her phone and cell phone don’t stop ringing.

On Tuesday, September 11, as Hurricane Florence barreled toward Wilmington, Good Shepherd shuttled residents to Trask Elementary School, the only county shelter open at that time. Then they closed their hurricane shutters, made sure the diesel tank for the generator was full, locked up, and put sandbags in front of the doors. One week later, executive director Katrina Knight reopened the center with the help of staff and volunteers who had stayed in the city through the storm.

They began making sandwiches to distribute. While trees had fallen in the parking area, one van had lost a few windows to pinecones-turned-missiles, and some fencing had fallen, for the most part, Good Shepherd was spared Florence’s wrath.

Volunteers with Whole Foods rallied to clear trees, folks with GE erected a new fence, and helpers nationwide brought in trucks full of supplies, including the latest from a Triangle-area church unloaded by Duke’s football team. “What’s so beautiful about this community is that it’s bigger than each of us individually,” Birnbach says. “We rally around those who have been hit the hardest.”

In the surrounding neighborhoods, many Wilmingtonians faced significant damage from the storm. “You can still see the devastation if you drive around this community,” Birnbach says. “This is not Landfall.” Bright blue tarps billow from rooftops, and piles of tree stumps, branches, mattresses, and furniture line the streets.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Good Shepherd staff visited county shelters every day to assess needs. “We’ve been looked upon by FEMA and the Red Cross as one of the lead agencies for help,” Birnbach says. At the center, staff and volunteers continued serving breakfast and lunch every day, with dinner reserved for overnight guests. “We’ve seen upwards of 50 new faces we didn’t see before,” Birnbach says. “The number continues to grow.” The center has added 8 new beds to manage the uptick, though they have yet to know just how large the influx will get.

Roger, a regular volunteer and shuttle driver at the center, says he’s surprised to see so many young faces, though it makes sense to him in the wake of nearby evictions. Roger spent 5 years in the Marine Corps and 25 in the army, 23 of which were spent in Special Forces at Fort Bragg.

After retiring and struggling with alcohol abuse, he found much-needed purpose volunteering at Good Shepherd. “Part of my recovery program is getting away from yourself—quit thinking about me, me, me all the time,” he says. “Do service for others without thanks, without anything; just go out and do it. It’s helped me.” Roger lives by the Special Forces motto De oppresso liber, meaning “liberate the oppressed.” “I’ve been doing that for decades,” he says. “So it’s very natural for me.”

While the Good Shepherd Center feeds the hungry and shelters the homeless on an everyday basis, fostering the transition to housing is their ultimate goal. “It’s that last piece that is the harder, more expensive, and intentional piece we’re proud of,” Birnbach says. “We moved 187 people off the streets, out of the shelter, and into housing last year.

We want the solution to homelessness—affordable housing—which we lacked in Wilmington anyway. Now, any housing is really difficult to come by.” Among the properties damaged in the hurricane were homes Good Shepherd residents hoped to move into. “We are not only seeing more people, but we suspect we’ll be seeing them for longer stays,” Birnbach adds. “There’s just nowhere to move to.”

Diana, a 62-year-old native of southeastern North Carolina, is one such resident at Good Shepherd. She moved through three county shelters during the hurricane due to flooding. “They were moving us from hallway to hallway, but the water was still coming!” she remembers— “I’ve seen some bad storms, but never one like this.” Yet, Diana calls the hurricane “a blessing for the whole of Wilmington.” As she explains, “All types of people, all walks of life, all colors have really come together looking out for each other. They really, really have. Every part of town, you see people feeding people, giving away clothing, helping families, even if they don’t know them. That’s really impressed me.”

Diana has been a resident of the shelter since July, when she lost her job and home in a string of hardships. “Now I’m in the process of looking for work, and they’re going to help me get into housing. Hopefully I’ll be back to work in a couple of weeks, and hopefully by the end of the month, I’ll be in my own place,” she says, “for the holidays.” When asked if she believes she’ll be able to find a home on schedule, in the wake of the storm, she says, “I hope. I’m praying.” After that, she plans to return to Good Shepherd—as a volunteer.

“They have really encouraged me to get out,” she says. “You’ve got to get out and do something for yourself, and I agree with that. When you appear to be helping yourself, they will help you. Good Shepherd will be right behind you.”

The Good Shepherd Center is continuously seeking more donations and volunteers. Large-size duffle bags and adult-size backpacks are also high in demand, as they’re often the lifeline for a homeless person and their belongings.