At least once a year, a group of friends and I get together and gather warm clothing, blankets and toiletries to distribute to our homeless friends and neighbors. It's a lot of work to put out appeals, pick up and sort the items, coordinate a date and location, get the vehicles to haul the items along with racks to hang the clothing, and spend a day in the cold weather. It costs us time, money, and leaves us physically drained once it's over. And, although totally spent, our souls are enriched beyond the words I could possibly use to describe it.

Our group, Project Under Covers, began shortly after a homeless man named Cordell Grimes (nicknamed Cuffy for all his fighting) passed away from liver cancer. He was a regular visitor to a car rental company located in Winston. The owner originally met the man by catching him trying to steal a grill from his property. Grimes was a tyrant when he drank. (Rumor has it that the police department actually had an entire course devoted to him.) My friend Jimmy Davis recalls how many times he had to physically remove the man from the property. But Grimes always returned, head bowed in apology, and asking for forgiveness. When sober, you found an extremely intelligent, compassionate man. He was a former engineer in a past life, and through details gleaned from stories he shared and some that he took to his grave, found himself sleeping in a nearby cemetery at night. Yet, if the man came to you to “borrow” $10, it was good as gold that you would get paid back. He was true to his word.

I met Grimes after receiving a call from Jimmy, telling me the one thing his friend really wanted was to get an actual ID but ran into roadblocks without a permanent address. I hung up the phone thinking, “how hard can it be?” I have a lot of nonprofit experience with housing issues, and was sure this was going to be done in a snap. After some time of exploring the web, I decided that perhaps telephone calls would help. Long story short, I was literally told by several people that the way that he could easily get an ID was to get himself arrested, using the jail as his address. I was floored that people could even suggest getting arrested to achieve any goal in life.

My NY attitude of defiance sparked up and my years of advocacy work kicked in. I put Grimes in my car, drove to the DMV, and through intensive negotiation, was finally able to get him his official North Carolina ID. To this day, I am convinced that any homeless person wanting or needing an ID would not be able to get it unless an experienced (and tenacious) advocate is actually standing by their side. I still treasure the picture Jimmy sent me of Grimes holding up the card, with a smile from ear to ear. Without knowing Grimes, I doubt we would be doing our giveaways.

We do not take monetary donations and the items collected are given out unconditionally. There is no judgment, no preaching, and nothing asked in return. If anyone needs us to lend a hug or an ear, we stand ready. The stories that have been shared with us have been unimaginable, incredible and inspiring. From ex-military to the next-door-neighbor type who happened to fall into unforeseen circumstances, their stories make one realize how sometimes life can hand out too much to handle. It makes me acknowledge how stupid and selfish it can be to get in a snit because some unexpected repair is going to cut into my budget when someone is telling me that they slept in an abandoned building last night.

At our most recent event, we managed to give away around 150 bags of items to help those who needed it. Tears were shed (mostly by my friend Jimmy), friendships were forged, and souls were touched. Each time the event ends, we leave feeling a little more fulfilled, a little more enriched, and a lot more educated on breaking stereotypes of homelessness.

I know if Grimes were watching over me right now, reading over my shoulder, he would be happy knowing that he inspired a bunch of us to help others. His heart and mind won over many, and taught us how to become better people. For now and forever, he will be dearly missed.

 

Ken Lack lives in Lexington and has provided services as a consultant and volunteer since moving here in 2009. He enjoys writing, cooking, and exploring the beauty and fun of North Carolina. More information on Project Under Covers can be found on Facebook. He can be reached at KenLack@mail.com.