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Urban Ministry Center a creative oasis for city's homeless 

It's only a few blocks north of the business-driven, buttoned-down Square, but for those without a home, the Urban Ministry Center is a saner, safer sector of Charlotte. Homeless Charlotteans, or as UMC staff members dub them, "our neighbors," come to the center for help with specific needs. UMC is a vibrant, vital complex of buildings, programs and committed people, all focused on helping the homeless help themselves, supplying basic services that most of us take for granted, and offering help navigating the social service agencies' maze. There's a daily noon meal, for sure, but also a laundry facility, a place to pick up mail, take a shower, make a long distance phone call, or talk with a counselor. A place to get help fine-tuning a resume, to produce paintings, join a soccer team or a choir. To see a nurse or dentist, or work in the garden. Most of all, Urban Ministry (www.urbanministrycenter.org) tries to create a welcoming, helpful atmosphere for the "neighbors" – people who are trying to get back on their feet, people from whom others often turn away in discomfort or even fright. It's a place where they can reconnect with those they know, and, hopefully, regain a stronger sense of self-esteem – the way life was before normalcy, for whatever reason and however it happened, flew out the window. Here are a few sights we saw and people we met over the course of a couple of days.

click to enlarge ALL PHOTOS BY CHRIS RADOK

The Center's organic garden, founded by local teacher/gardener Don Boekelheide, is in its winter dormant phase. It overlooks the old train depot that served as the original UMC building. Now, since the construction of a new, modern center next door, the building is home to CommunityWorks 945, a series of programs that engage the homeless in a variety of pursuits to help rekindle motivation and develop life skills needed to move on to the next step in life.

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First thing in the morning and after lunch, neighbors line up at the front desk of UMC's main building and tell the volunteer attendant why they've come (mail, shower, counselor, etc.). The attendant directs each person to the right area, or puts him/her on a waiting list, particularly if the goal is to use a phone or see a counselor.

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Neighbors without a permanent address can have their mail delivered to the Urban Ministry, a big help for those waiting for an ID, the results of medical tests, a check, a bill, or just a word from faraway family. Here, ArtWorks 945 director Penny Mann does some "front desk time," handing one of the neighbors his mail for the day.

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Throughout the day, Diane Barringer does her best to keep the Urban Ministry grounds tidy and litter-free.

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In the Center's sizeable laundry room, people who normally wouldn't have access to washer/dryers come to clean their clothes. The service is particularly helpful for the homeless who have an upcoming interview, or have just started a job. Bonnie Sandoval is glad for the chance to do her laundry while catching up with acquaintances and friends.

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Many homeless neighbors take advantage of the Center's offer of a hot, private shower. Some neighbors, such as this man who wanted to remain anonymous, opt to get clean at the same time as their clothes.

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A free hot lunch is offered every day, 365 days a year, no questions asked, in the colorful dining area, which, after lunch, serves as an all-purpose room. Lunch is usually served by volunteers from local churches.

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In one of the rooms in the old train depot, talented neighbors can take art classes of various sorts. More than 300 people have participated in painting, photography, ceramics and writing classes, and sales from art shows here have brought in almost $50,000 to date. Here, Ray Isaac (left) and local actor Barney Baggett (center) are among those preparing for an upcoming class in which theatrical "trust exercises" will be put to the test.

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Alicia Stinson rests on a bench in a small, meditative area near a handmade "bottle tree" and a "walking labyrinth" made of stones. Stinson said she was pondering her future, as the help she'd gotten from UMC in her quest to qualify for Medicaid had borne fruit that day. "That's going to make it easier for me to get a place now," she explained.

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