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If You’re Homeless in Durham, Open Table Ministry’s Free Store is the Best Kept Secret

Tuesdays and Thursdays are Free Store Day at Open Table Ministry, where homeless residents from all over Durham County make their way to the basement of the Trinity United Methodist Church to sort through donated garments, shoes, and toiletries, taking with them what they need to survive.

On these days, the hallways of the worn, nearly 100-year-old building are teeming with people: people waiting, people sorting, and people surviving.

David and Shera Newcomb are two of them.

The college educated couple are no strangers to the value of hard work. David spent 25 years of his career in sales for a construction company and was also a founding member of the Sunrise Resource Recovery Center. Most recently, both worked for Steel City Services — David as a Project Superintendent out of the Charlotte office and Shera in administration at the home base.

It only took being laid off and another three months for the Newcombs to go from living self-sufficiently to living in a tent.

“A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is to dig out a hole when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep at night,” said David Newcomb as he and his wife scour bins for clothing appropriate for everything from picnics to job interviews.

Reverend Carolyn Schuldt, Executive Director of Open Table Ministry, knows this well. Despite never having experienced homelessness herself, she’s dedicated 11 years of her career thus far toward providing wraparound support to homeless individuals and has built a community reputation on being big-hearted and fearless.

The Free Store began just two years ago in the front half of what was technically Reverend Schuldt’s office within Trinity United Methodist Church. But the concept developed years prior, when the organization was operating out of her car.

“It was in the back of my mind that homeless people need access to tangible things like clean, dry socks to shoes without holes to a warm jacket when it’s cold to a t-shirt when it’s hot. And by the way, they also need water and hygiene items,” Schuldt explains. “These are things you can’t fit in your trunk.”

More than 300 people live in homelessness in the Durham and Chapel Hills areas. And in the two years since the Free Store has opened, it has expanded to meet that community’s needs. What started with half an office soon expanded to a full office and then into part of the Sunday School room next door before that too was given over to support Open Table Ministry’s efforts.

Today, the Free Store serves around 120 people per month. Many of the items are donated but Schuldt and her team aren’t afraid to make bulk purchases when needed, acquiring the supplies needed at a lower cost.

But the store is about more than providing the clothing and goods that people need to survive, Reverend Schuldt and her dedicated team of volunteers utilize that time to build relationships — relationships they hope will ultimately help to end homelessness for many of the people that visit.

“I think we’ve built a lot of relationships with people who have come to the Free Store,” said Deb Rentfrow, Open Table Ministry’s Free Store Coordinator. “People need to feel out whether they’re going to be judged, especially people with addictions for example. That’s the thing I really like. I’ve been doing this for a year and there are clients who have stayed clean. I’ll remember that and celebrate them. It’s a good source of encouragement.”

One thing that’s apparent from visiting Open Table Ministry is both the level of trust clients place in Reverend Schuldt and her volunteer team as well as the strategic approach they take toward helping their homeless clients find stable housing, which is never as simple as just finding someone an affordable home.

That’s why the Free Store team has instituted policies and expanded programs that are designed to help clients piece together the puzzle that, once finished, will lead to that ultimate goal.

One of those policies is that clients in search of free clothing must provide a valid ID and if they don’t have one, Free Store volunteers will sit down and help them order one on-site. That ID represents more than just an identification, it’s part of the means to securing housing and getting jobs.

The Get To Work program is another. Launched in March 2019, the initiative targets able-bodied and healthy community members who need something as simple as work boots or black pants to find and maintain employment.

To date, the program has supported more than 45 individuals and with a $10,000 grant provided by United Way of the Greater Triangle, Open Table Ministry will be able to help 200 more people get the equipment needed to gain employment.

By enabling unemployed people to enter the workforce and earn a living, they’re also helping them acquire important skills and experience, gain self-esteem, and become self-sufficient.

They hope that Get To Work will eventually help break the cycle of homelessness for everyone.

But for now, every week, Reverend Schuldt walks the halls with a silver fanny pouch hanging from her hips and a wide smile ready for everyone who comes in.

“They need somebody in this crazy world that really cares. I think it’s significant because they don’t find that. Mark is that true?” Schuldt asked turning to Mark Scruggs, a full-time volunteer and disabled veteran. Scruggs knows the power of Open Table Ministry’s support system because after 40 years of suffering from his own alcohol addiction and living in homelessness, Schuldt saved his life too.

“Yeah, I’ve traveled all over the country for 12 years and I never saw a place that has everything like Open Table Ministry does. They accomplished everything they ever set out to do for me.”