Medically fragile residents find new home

Winston-Salem has created a new shelter for homeless people with medical conditions


Though it can take a while to get placed in the city’s new shelter, the permanent housing has given hope to Winston-Salem’s underserved homeless population.

Turner Jones, Contributing Writer

Until the pandemic struck, Lee McKeithan spent his days wandering the streets downtown or living in crowded congregate homeless shelters.

Now, after living in a hotel room provided by the Medically Fragile Shelter, he has been placed in a permanent home.

“It was a beautiful thing. It’s been a blessing,” McKeithan said.

McKeithan is one of the tens of homeless people with medical conditions targeted by a coalition of homeless advocates for better housing.

“We have seen it at the medically fragile shelter. If you get a good night’s sleep, and a hot shower and your stomach is full, things really do change,” Lea Thullbery, director of diversion and outreach at City With Dwellings, one of the organizations involved in the shelter’s creation, said.

In a joint effort, the City of Winston-Salem and local community outreach organizations created the shelter for the medically fragile members of the homeless to protect them from COVID-19. The organization has guaranteed all residents of the shelter permanent housing assistance.

The shelter was started last April and is located at a local hotel on the northside of Winston-Salem, but due to privacy for the residents, organizers declined to give the specific location of the hotel. It is intended for people who meet certain criteria which qualifies them as high-risk for COVID-19 under current CDC guidelines. It houses people who come from both congregate shelters and directly off the streets of downtown and surrounding areas, where the risk of viral transmission is high.

“The people who are eligible, because they have these conditions, are really at a higher risk of death or getting really sick,” Thullbery said.

The current capacity of the shelter sits at 40 rooms. Couples may room together. Residents at the shelter are able to enjoy a private room, a bathroom and a TV.

For people who have been living in overcrowded congregate shelters and on the street, this is quite a welcome change, according to McKeithan.

Residents of the hotel are expected to follow all social distancing and masking guidelines and are encouraged to only leave for smoke breaks, for shorts walks, or to go to doctors appointments. There is also staff on site 24 hours a day.

“This is for their safety and the safety of the other residents,” Thullbery said.

The city is funding the costs of the shelter and has also guaranteed all residents of the shelter permanent housing assistance.

Rochelle Smith, interim executive director at Bethesda Center, another organization involved in facilitating the shelter, said that permanent housing placement has been more difficult because the moratorium on evictions, due to the pandemic, has limited available housing. She also said that they often run into identification and documentation issues when searching for housing. Despite the challenges, people are typically being placed within 60 days.

Though it took eight months to get in, McKeithan was one of 53 residents that were able to be placed in permanent housing.

“I really didn’t think I was gonna get placed since it took so long,” McKeithan said. Now, he says, he’s ready to find a job. “I want to do something positive,” he said.