Adam Sides Jr. has a long fuse.
As a kid, Adam always told people he wanted to be in the military. He said he wanted to help people who couldn’t help themselves. His doctors, however, told him those dreams wouldn’t become a reality.
Now, the 43-year-old Chatham County resident has endured countless tribulations of his own in his quest for stable housing.
Yet, through it all, he’s maintained his positive attitude and affable personality.
When a construction accident in the 1990s left Adam with a ruptured disc, spinal issues and chronic pain, he found himself doing odd jobs for friends to make ends meet. But when those jobs dried up, or those friends went away, Adam was left with limited options.
Despite never being in trouble with the law, never having issues with drugs, and having no blemishes on his record, Adam found himself on the street.
Adam has bounced around the state at various homeless shelters where he says he faced abuse, neglect and lack of care. He came to Chatham County on a whim last September — fed up with his situation at a shelter in Durham — because a Google search said the county had a shelter.
The problem, however, is that Chatham County has no homeless shelter.
“I guess you could say it was misinformation that brought me here,” Sides said.
Instead, Adam has been forced to navigate a hodgepodge of government agencies, local nonprofit organizations and loads of paperwork to ensure he’d have a stable place to rest his head at night.
Adam is just one of dozens of homeless residents in Chatham County. But without a proper shelter, a vast county geography and limited resources to assist with the problem, the hurdle of homelessness can be daunting to overcome.
A HELPING HAND
When he first arrived in Chatham, Adam was staying near the Food Lion in Pittsboro and noticed an abundance of trash outside. He picked up a bucket and a big stick and began sweeping the trash he found behind the grocery store.
The Chatham County Fairgrounds are adjacent to the Food Lion, so soon enough Adam’s trash pickup wandered there too.
“I just hate seeing trash and litter,” Adam said. “My grandparents always told me not to litter, and I still can’t stand it.”
In a short period, Adam picked up trash all the way to nearby Roberson Creek. At the beginning, he said the creek looked like a “trash dam,” but nowadays it flows as it should. He estimates he’s filled more than 150 buckets with trash in the area.
Before he passed away in December 2022, Chatham County Fairgrounds Board Member Carl Bryant noticed Adam’s trash pickup and invited him to stay on the grounds. Adam helped out with trash cleanup and keeping watch at night to make sure trespassers didn’t come onto the property. In exchange, Bryant let Adam sleep in a shed on the fairgrounds to keep away from the winter cold.
That cramped shed, which was also used for fairground storage, was Adam’s shelter from last November until April. At just over six feet in length, it was often difficult for Adam to find a comfortable place to rest his big frame. He says he often slept sitting upright with a travel neck pillow for support.
“It wasn’t really sleep, it was more like a temporary passing out,” Adam said. “If I laid there, my head or chin would touch my chest.”
The conditions only exacerbated his chronic pain and spinal issues.
Despite all these challenges, Adam still considers himself among the lucky ones. He’s managed to navigate the complex system.
“I’ve made do with what I got,” he said. “My grandparents always told me anger didn’t get me anywhere, and I need to keep pressing on.”
FILLING THE GAPS
For one, he hasn’t been alone on this long road toward housing. He’s had the help of a Chapel Hill couple — Melanie and Jeff York. The Yorks have helped Adam by fundraising, assisting with paperwork and consistently communicating to make sure he has what he needs.
“He just so clearly wants to help people and do good in the world,” Melanie said. “We just sort of grew fond of him and built a solid relationship of trust.”
As a longtime educator and civically involved resident, Melanie had assisted homeless people before, but never in such a hands-on capacity. She now communicates with Adam daily and has been a critical part in ensuring he has stable shelter.
When Adam was asked to leave the fairgrounds property in April, the Yorks helped pull together funds for a storage unit and helped sponsor his stay at AmeriVu Inn and Suites in Siler City.
The Yorks first met Adam when Melanie was volunteering with the county’s Point-in-Time (PIT) count. She made a personal effort to improve the county’s involvement with the count this year by recruiting volunteers and coordinating resources.
The PIT count is a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January. PIT follows the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definition of homeless: People who are living in a place not meant for human habitation, in an emergency shelter, in transitional housing or are exiting an institution where they temporarily resided.
According to that count in 2022, the most recent available data, Chatham County has 29 total people experiencing homelessness, which is about one of every 2,600 residents. Many local officials believe, however, that figure is much higher because of flaws in the PIT methodology because it does not account for people staying in motels, with friends and family or are “couch-surfing.”
“This year, thanks to a dedicated group of volunteers and Triangle J Council of Governments, a much more coordinated effort was undertaken for the Point in Time count,” said Jennie Kristiansen, director of Chatham County Social Services.
Chatham County also added a street outreach specialist this year, which will allow for increased access and engagement with people who are unsheltered and may have difficulty accessing services through coordinated entry, Kristiansen said.
The county also utilizes a best practice for homelessness in rural communities known as Rapid Rehousing. The model is designed to help individuals and families find housing as quickly as possible, according to Chatham County Emergency Housing Coordinator Paige Felton.
“In Chatham County, the program is administered through Central Piedmont Community Action; however, both Love Chatham and Salvation Army work with individuals and families experiencing homelessness on a regular basis,” Felton said.
She added the county is also working to develop a White Flag Sheltering Protocol, which assists with temporary shelter during extreme weather. In some communities, churches or hotels are used to provide temporary shelter.
While these resources are a step in the right direction, Felton said the biggest change in improving homelessness in Chatham County is education and awareness.
“Up until recently, homelessness was a problem that I don’t think a lot of people noticed,” she said. “In rural communities, people may be doubled up, living in a car, or maybe in a tent so it may be more overlooked compared to urban communities where people are living on streets or in parks. I’m encouraged by the number of people in Chatham who care about this issue and are stepping up to give of their time and to donate financially to organizations serving people in need.”
THE DIGNITY OF COMFORT
Adam said the reason he believes he’s homeless is because of his chronic pain. Several doctors have told him he could not handle office work because long periods of sitting could cause blood clots. He is also unable to do manual labor under his condition. With limited options, he’s forced to rely on fixed income he receives from disability insurance.
“Even sitting here is difficult with the spine being broken and the nerve damage,” Adam told the News + Record as he sat in a chair inside his AmeriVu suite. “So it’s both moving too much and not moving enough that causes me nerve pain.”
Several times per day, Adam uses a muscle gun up and down his back to release the tension on his spine. He also has intermittent stretches and movements he does to mitigate the pain, but it’s nearly impossible to predict how intense the flare ups will be.
The News + Record first met with Adam in mid-April when he was staying in the Siler City AmeriVu. The room, though spacious, was full of clothes, groceries, toiletries and other belongings Adam had collected over the years. The room had two twin beds, but one was hidden under a mountain of dirty laundry.
He said much of the mess was due to the pain limiting the amount of time he could spend cleaning or tidying up. In the new space, however, with the comfort of a bed and hot water he said the bouts with his back had become less frequent and less intense.
“I’ve used that hot shower more than I probably ever should’ve,” Adam said. “I’ve gotten so much sleep, my back has actually improved here.”
Melanie said she also noticed improvement in his gait, increased color in his face and “a renewed brightness in his eyes.”
The issue, however, was that Adam’s stay in AmeriVu was a temporary solution. He was scraping by and the Yorks were supplementing week-to-week stints through the beginning of May.
“I really do not want this to go south,” Melanie said in mid-April. “We can’t not support this man. We’ve seen him this far along, we’ve got to maintain this.”
At that time, Adam was on a two-year long waitlist for a public housing voucher. And with local organizations and county staff stretched thin, it was unclear how long the comfort of the AmeriVu room would last.
A WINDING PATH
While both Adam knew challenges toward a stable future lay ahead, he felt there was no choice but to persevere. And with the help of the Yorks he worked to secure Permanent Supportive Housing through the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS).
According to NCDHHS, Permanent Supportive Housing is meant to provide eligible adults living with disabilities and/or experiencing homelessness the opportunity to attain and maintain integrated, affordable housing with flexible supports.
“This housing model helps rebuild lives, offers hope, and provides critical stability for individuals and families,” the NCDHHS website reads.
In Chatham County, Adam discovered there was limited experience with Permanent Supportive Housing options. He and Melanie spent hours filling out paperwork including tests about his vulnerability, and more hours on the phone with local organizations trying to ensure the proper steps were being taken.
Without the guidance, and time commitment of the Yorks, Adam said he likely would not have been able to know all his potential housing options.
Melanie said the larger issue is that it shouldn’t take a personal herculean effort to help someone in need. She said the system needs to be adjusted to better serve the needs of the community.
County officials said they acknowledge there are a lot of hoops to jump through for homeless residents and they are working to streamline the system across multiple agencies.
Felton said the county will soon be using the Homelessness Management Information System across multiple agencies in Chatham County. There will also be an online application option and a paper application available at the Department of Social Services 24/7 for the Emergency Housing Assistance Program through the Chatham County Dept. of Social Services.
The Yorks and Sides worked for more than four months without a long term solution — each phone call an added stressor, each day a burden of unknowing, yet through it all Adam never lost faith. Then finally, at long last, Adam was able to secure a place that is permanently his.
At the beginning of June, Adam officially moved into Creekside Apartments in Pittsboro.
While there have been some learning curves and struggles with the new place, it’s complete with a full kitchen, a queen size bed and all the necessities Adam says he needs.
Since moving in, he says his mental health has improved dramatically because he no longer has to deal with the stress of not knowing where he would rest his head at night.
“It has absolutely improved,” he said. “I just have a better train of thought here. Not having to worry about a leak, or what the temperature is outside. It’ll surprise you how much it really changes the dynamic of your life.”
Going forward, Adam says he wants to dedicate his time to helping others, especially those experiencing homelessness. He’s already begun donating items to Salvation Army and Love Chatham to provide resources to those in need.
“Now I really know I ain’t going nowhere,” Adam said. “And that is the biggest relief in the world.”