Tiffany Edwurds was sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, huddled under a blanket outside Raleigh’s homeless shelter, when the Rev. Phil Brickle strode up and handed her a crisp $20 bill.
She held the money in her mittened hand, trying to keep it from flying away in the wind, then thanked the pastor and asked if he could recommend a good dentist.
“I have a tooth that needs to come out,” said Edwurds, 40. “I’ve been homeless since May 17, and I haven’t been in a shelter yet. Been trying to get my tooth pulled.”
Brickle had no medical referral in his pocket, but for the last six months, he has handed out roughly $9,000 in cash on the Raleigh streets, he said — one $20 bill at a time.
On Saturday, he set up shop outside the Oak City Multi-Services Center on South Wilmington Street, where homeless people gather for a weekend lunch. Some live inside the men’s shelter next-door.
But since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, people who are homeless report the shelter has been operating at a more limited capacity, meaning far more of them take shelter in the woods nearby, setting up tents and mattresses on the ground. The men and women who took $20 last week endured sub-freezing temperatures, near-constant rain and the threat of an ice storm. Some who accepted Brickle’s money spent it on propane tanks for use inside those tents.
As head of Lost Sheep Outreach Ministry, Brickle runs his one-man rescue operation with donated funds. On this particular Saturday, his $550 came from the North Raleigh Methodist Men.
“Some people got stimulus checks, and some people got none,” he said, gesturing to the dozens of homeless around him. “Some people don’t have mail boxes. Some people don’t have post office boxes. Some people don’t have an address. People out here are struggling to survive.”
In the pandemic, Raleigh’s Helping Hand Mission has seen demand for emergency meals shoot up by 35%, prompting the charity to set up a free-food box on a New Bern Avenue corner. An N.C. State University study shows North Carolina families working with less household income and, in increasing numbers, facing grocery shortages.
Brickle knows it well. His $20 project is one of many designed to connect with this population, including his annual Christmas toy giveaway. A former heroin addict, he knows the hard road back to stable housing and regular meals for those who’ve hit bottom, and he offers a hand with some first-step cash. As he hands out money, he snaps a picture of each recipient, posting them to Facebook with the caption, “So thankful to the Lord for letting me see another day.”
“We know there’s going to be some people who won’t use it properly,” he said. “But we can’t afford to weed that out right now.”
He chooses different spots each Saturday, and he remembers faces so the money doesn’t land in the same hands every week.
Not everyone who receives the generosity lacks a roof for shelter. Edwurds has spent nearly a year outdoors, but Christina Fleming lives in an extended-stay motel near Crabtree Valley Mall, and she works several days a week. The $20 from Brickle helps with essentials, she said, while she hopes for more consistent housing.
“I can afford rent,” she said, “but the security deposit I cannot afford at all. This right here is the only thing I can lean to.”
After an hour, Brickle handed out more than $500, and as he grew ready to leave, a straggler arrived asking if he’d come too late.
Brickle had already given out the last $20 bill, but he looked the man in the eye and asked, “You need $20?” The man, with a cross tattooed above his eyes, nodded back.
So Brickle reached into his pocket, giving the day’s last bit of charity from his own wallet.