Red Cross shelter was a home for the homeless

ray gerrish

The following is an excerpt from an article by Olivia Neeley of The Wilson Times. It’s about Ray Gerrish, a homeless man in Wilson, N.C., who found hope and love in an American Red Cross shelter.

As Ray Gerrish sat underneath the gazebo Wednesday, his hands shook. He started to smoke, heavily. The unknown awaits him today. And he’s scared.

The past five nights, Gerrish has had a roof over his head, a place to sleep and food in his belly. Far different from the life he’s lived recently.

But he knew this day would come. He knew he couldn’t stay there forever. He knows he will have to say goodbye.

“You know when you have that gut feeling you’re going to miss your family?” he said. “That’s basically how I feel.”

Gerrish, who had been staying at the Raleigh Road Baptist Church shelter for nearly a week, was now contemplating his next move. The shelter, operated by the American Red Cross, was closing.

“I’m a nervous wreck,” he said. “Not knowing … you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next hour.” 


It was the night before Hurricane Irene was expected to hit Wilson. Gerrish had only eaten three peaches in the past few days. His blood sugar levels dropped. And the heat, bearing down on his small-frame body, eventually took its toll.

After finally passing out, he somehow got to the hospital. He was weary.

The storm was headed his way. And he knew it wasn’t safe to stay where he had been calling home — the woods in Wilson.
While in the hospital regaining strength with the help of fluids and food, he saw someone he knew. The woman told him about the hurricane shelter opening up in Wilson at Raleigh Road Baptist Church. He headed out there around noon and stood in line for three hours. Finally he was safe from this storm.

But it would only be for a short time. 


The first day the shelter opened, migrant workers from Hyde County arrived in two yellow school buses. They loved him. The shelter began to quickly fill up. By evening, Gerrish was settled in, reading “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

Two days later, his demeanor was quite different. He laughed a lot and met two brothers from Swan Quarter.

“We’ve been having a ball the past few days,” Gerrish said Sunday over lunch.

His spirit was rejuvenated. His smile rekindled. 


Red Cross volunteers scurried around Wednesday morning. Cots were taken down. Boxes were packed. And the makeshift space Gerrish called home briefly was on the brink of shutting down.

He knew his time was drawing to an end.

“It’s really scary,” he said, puffing on a cigarette still sitting underneath the gazebo. He almost left the shelter a day earlier. It’s easier to leave than say goodbye.

The dream he had been living in would soon fade. Instead, reality would sink in. The place where laughter once bounced off the walls would soon be filled with silence by nightfall.

But his life wasn’t always this way. 


Gerrish worked on an oil rig years ago. In the early 90s he worked in Charlotte, picking up the homeless, feeding them, he said. “Who would ever think it would happen to me, making a complete circle in the opposite direction,” he said with a gaze directed at the floor of the gazebo.

As Gerrish rubs his leg, he appears to be in pain. He’s had three surgeries and now walks with a cane. He said he injured his leg after falling down a flight of stairs.

He said he received a workman’s compensation settlement for his injury, but the money is long gone.

He helped his mother, sister, others and provided for himself as long as he could. Now he’s applied for disability, which can take years before it’s approved.

“I need my social security to come through,” he said. “I just need a break. How much further down can you get?”


Dinah Veler, Red Cross disaster leadership team coordinator, met Gerrish the day he checked into the shelter. While her duties were extensive, she became a solid rock for him. He even opened up to her about his life.

To Gerrish, she was a blessing from above, something he has needed for a long time.

“I’ve really met a good friend, a friend for life,” Gerrish said. “I don’t have any friends. I don’t have any family. She’s special.”

The entire time the shelter was open, you could always find Veler with a smile on her face. She’s from Scotland County and helped out during Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi. She said people start to heal when they open up and tell their stories.

“Every time they tell me their story, it gets a little bit easier for them,” Veler said earlier this week.

Gerrish said the two plan to stay in contact. She appeared to be worried about him Wednesday.

She handed him a letter earlier, he said.

“Don’t read it until after (you leave the shelter),” she told him. 


Gerrish smokes another cigarette. The pastor at Raleigh Road Baptist Church, along with Red Cross volunteers, have been working all morning to find Gerrish a place to stay. He’s grateful. But he knows options are limited.

Tears fill his eyes, but only briefly.

“It will all work out,” he said.

All Gerrish has now are the memories he made in a place he least expected and an uncertain future.

Still, he learned to laugh again.

Different paths crossed at this disaster shelter. It wasn’t just a place of refuge from the storm. For a few days, it was a home he loved.


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