BY ELIZABETH BRIGNAC
When a guest appeared at her office door, Kathy Johnson, director of Oak City Cares, was busy. “Ms. Kathy, may I speak to you a moment?” asked the man, whom Johnson refers to as “K.” Distracted, Johnson stepped away from her desk to find K holding a birthday cake, balloons and decorations. “Today is my birthday. I decided I was going to celebrate it with you all,” he told her. Johnson, her colleagues and OCC’s guests put aside their work and had a party—the first birthday K, 46, had ever celebrated with others. He trusted that the people at OCC would celebrate with him.
OCC, an organization dedicated to building relationships with and assisting homeless people, has grown rapidly since its 2018 founding. Homelessness is on the rise in Wake County. As of July 2023, OCC’s client numbers had risen by 97% in a single year. The services OCC provides have increased with its clients’ needs.
Success at OCC centers on building relationships as well as combatting homelessness. Some of OCC’s results can be quantified. Between the beginning of 2018 through July 2023, OCC offered 32,745 people showers. Guests washed 18,572 loads of laundry, 207,319 meals were served and 4,570 people met with coordinated care advisors. But for the staff, it’s the intangible successes—knowing clients’ names and preferences, and being trusted to help guests navigate through the most difficult times in their lives—that defines the work they do.
“We’re not a shelter,” says David Brashier, director of development and communications for OCC. “But this place can really feel like a home for a lot of our guests.”
OCC offers three categories of service: basic needs, weekend meals and coordinated care. Basic needs services include offering access to bathrooms, water, toiletries and other supplies, as well as telephones and mobile phone chargers—lifelines for people seeking community resources. Guests can take 20-minute showers in large, sanitized bathrooms. People can access washers, dryers and detergent, with staff available to offer assistance and supplies.
On weekends, OCC is one of the only facilities in Wake County providing free meals. Volunteers supply and serve as many as 600 people per weekend, and the numbers are climbing. “It used to be 125 meals served” at a time, Johnson says. “Now we’re close to 250.”
Through coordinated efforts, OCC works with 30-plus partner organizations to assess and fulfill guest needs. “We want to be a one-stop shop for individuals who are homeless or at risk of being homeless to get as many different services as they can,” Brashier says.
Homeless individuals can find themselves traveling for days, children and possessions in tow, to access organizations scattered all over town.
To qualify for one service, they are told they must access another, and then another. Confused and exhausted, some resign themselves to homelessness.
To avoid that problem, OCC brings as many partners as possible onto its campus and provides care coordinators to help guests find the services they need. Partners offer medical care, mental health care, food, shelter and other resources. “We connect them not just to services, but to the right services in the right order,” Johnson says. They usually start by helping guests get IDs and mailing addresses, since many organizations require these. Guests can save days of travel and effort through knowing where to start.
OCC seeks partner organizations whose missions center on the homeless community, an approach that “helps to build long-term sustainable relationships around services,” Johnson says. Tosheria Brown, director of programs and services, refers to herself as an air traffic controller because she directs the partner “traffic” and keeps the many collaborating organizations communicating with each other. For efficiency’s sake, she tries to schedule partners with related services to be on-site on the same days.
Thirty percent of OCC’s staff has experienced homelessness, which gives them personal understanding of their clients’ needs. OCC’s outreach care coordinator, Camron Holland, was homeless as a teenager. When he first toured OCC, he says he told Johnson “if she didn’t have a position for me to come work, then I would need for her to make one as soon as possible. Think of a title, wrap my name on it and let me know where to show up,” he says. “My experience would have been completely different,” Holland says, “if I had a place to come take a shower, or come do laundry, or come talk with someone about getting care, getting resources, getting clothes, getting food.”
Today, Holland directs OCC’s street outreach team, finding people living on the street and making sure they know what OCC has to offer.
Collaboration at Oak City Cares extends beyond its coordinated care services. The organization represents a public/private partnership between OCC, Wake County and the City of Raleigh. The private organization funds the staff, furniture and equipment. Wake County funds the facility, its maintenance and its security. Volunteers provide weekend meals, but the City of Raleigh funds the kitchen and its staff. These collaborative relationships provide OCC with essential financial stability.
The organization formally collaborates with its guests through quarterly meetings to discover emerging needs and to learn what’s working and what isn’t. Many guests also get the word out to others living outdoors about OCC’s services.
Finally, OCC collaborates with community volunteers. A recent meeting with guests, for example, revealed a need for hearing aids and eyeglasses among the homeless population, so OCC is getting the word out about this need to donors and qualified providers. Community collaboration works both ways. A local crocheting group has crocheted plastic grocery bags into waterproof mats that protect people living outdoors from sleeping on the damp ground. They reached out to OCC to help distribute these mats into the community. In this organic way, OCC continues to grow and reach more people.
“[Wake County] is a very collaborative community. Unusually so, I’d say,” Johnson says. OCC’s success relies heavily on that collaboration.