‘True Blue’: A day in the life of the woman helping Camden’s unhoused people escape the cold

Tawanda Jones was on a mission to relocate dozens of people from a school gym, to keep them warm over the weekend.

On March 5, 2021, at her warming center in the Yorkship Family School gym, Tawanda Jones, right, tries to convince a patron known as Sarah Ann to allow Jones to help her rent a room at a boarding house. Sarah Ann had told Jones that if there was nowhere else to go that night, she would sleep in Camden's Evergreen Cemetery.  (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

On March 5, 2021, at her warming center in the Yorkship Family School gym, Tawanda Jones, right, tries to convince a patron known as Sarah Ann to allow Jones to help her rent a room at a boarding house. Sarah Ann had told Jones that if there was nowhere else to go that night, she would sleep in Camden's Evergreen Cemetery. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

The woman they call “Wawa” should have seen it coming. Tawanda Jones should have known that after housing up to 70 homeless individuals for almost a month at a makeshift warming center — providing hot meals, fresh clothing, assistance with long-term housing, employment and detox programs, and boundless affection — they wouldn’t want to leave.

On Thursday, the last night the Camden School District was allowing Jones to use the Yorkship Family School gym in the Fairview section of the city, she arranged for a spoken-word poet and comedian to entertain her patrons. After the performances, some told her they would ignore the next day’s deadline and stay at the school, invoking “squatters’ rights.”

Jones, 48, was too exhausted for debate. She had slept in the gym herself almost every night since the 24-hour operation opened Jan. 28, and her husband, Robert Jones, who had suffered a stroke in 2019, needed her.

She sneaked home. During the five, mostly sleepless hours Jones spent in her rowhouse in the Parkside neighborhood, her 6-year old son, Re’Kye, came into her bedroom. “He said, `I thought you would leave to be with the people,’” she recalled, and told her how much he’d been missing her.

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Spring may be coming, but the temperature was still expected to dip below the 32-degree threshold for Code Blue over the weekend. Jones — a Camden native who founded both the Camden Sophisticated Sisters drill team and the Masked Melanin Market, which showcases Black-owned businesses — wanted a few more days to house the people she regards as “one big, dysfunctional family.”

Over the course of the next 24 hours, Jones set out on a mission to find another place for her charges to keep warm.

On March 5, 2021, Tawanda Jones, her back to the camera, gets a hug from a patron at her warming center in the Yorkship Family School gym. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

Taking her case to social media

She couldn’t ask Camden School Superintendent Katrina McCombs, who had allowed her the use of the gym, for yet another extension: McCombs needed to prepare the school for the resumption of in-person learning in April. As Jones tried to come up with another location, a patron who identified himself as “Robert S” was imploring the others to refuse to leave.

“We need change!” he cried. “We deserve what rich people deserve … We’re not animals, we don’t deserve to sleep in abandoned buildings!”

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Jones decided to back-burner the squatters’ rights issue until her patrons could “blow off some steam” and “calm down.” She began to call churches and other organizations to see if anyone could lend her a building for the next few nights.

On March 5, 2021, a homeless man who identifies himself as Robert S, asked other patrons to raise their hand if they were prepared to refuse to leave the warming center in the Yorkship Family School gym at the deadline given them; they later backed down, and found other lodging for two more nights. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

Jones took her frustration to social media. In an emotional, hourlong speech on Facebook Live Friday morning, Jones addressed a comment made by Camden Director of Human Services and Camden County Freeholder Carmen Rodriguez that offended her.

Rodriguez had recently said of Jones’ compassionate approach, “We’re not here to invite the unhoused in to feel comfortable.”

Jones, who believes she is doing God’s work, said her detractors can’t interfere with her mission. She raged at “self-righteous” church people who don’t help the homeless, saying, “The real ministry is outside church walls!”

She also accused some agencies that make money helping people experiencing homelessness of purposely keeping them dependent. “The numbers are all you care about,” Jones said. “This is how you get your funding … so if you keep them stagnant, that works for you. But it’s not working for them.”

Jones spoke of her disappointment with politicians who discuss homelessness at meetings “with no damn results.” She scoffed at those who think she has “an agenda,” because she operated what she now calls the “True Blue Warming Station” solely with donations and with no pay. (She has also started a nonprofit with that name to establish a shelter of her own in the future; information can be found here.)

On March 5, 2021, unhoused patrons clean and prepare to spend the night at a community center in Camden after having to leave the makeshift warming center in the gym at the city’s Yorkship Family School. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

Jones responded to those who would judge her for entertaining her patrons — many of whom are intellectually and developmentally challenged — the previous night: “We were up here having a party because for that moment, they didn’t have to worry about being homeless … it’s better than them getting high to not think about their problem!”

“I’m sick of you all telling me watch what you say, don’t burn no bridges,” Jones said — then she thanked God for the superintendent who gave her use of the school.

On Friday, Jones also gave television interviews citing her shelter’s success: Fourteen patrons were guided into detox, 10 are now living in a rooming house, and one more in an apartment; six have found employment.

All afternoon, she sat at a roundtable in the gym, brainstorming solutions with allies.

The “squatters’ rights” advocates quietly dropped their plan. A few patrons cried as they pondered going back out into the cold — to shelters like Joseph’s House that allow the unhoused to enter at nightfall and require that they leave the following morning, or to Camden’s Walter Rand Transportation Center, where the bathrooms are typically locked.

A security guard working at the school told Jones that his experience with the warming station was eye-opening, and said the group could stay past 3 p.m., until 7 that evening, which bought more time. Jones hugged him.

A church she reached out to told her they had insurance issues with sheltering her group. “Who cares about insurance when you’re worried about people?” said Jones.

The Crowne Plaza had rooms for $111 a night, but nobody at the table could afford that.

Jones surveyed the gym and smiled. “I feel like a mom who’s got some detachment issues!” she said.

As the sun set, Jones made sure all her patrons had her phone number. She passed out hats and gloves and thanked the volunteer who had just brought Chick-Fil-A takeout for everyone.

Jones asked each person where he or she would be headed. A 56-year old woman who gave her name as Sarah Ann told Jones she would sleep in Evergreen Cemetery in Camden that night. After learning that the woman received monthly social service checks, Jones begged her to try a rooming house where she’d placed others.

Sarah Ann was hesitant, saying she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and didn’t have her medications. “Bad things happen to me when I live with other people,” she said.

Jones persisted. “Can you at least try it and then say you don’t like it?” she asked the woman. “You don’t have to be afraid, I’d go there with you.”

On March 5, 2021, Tawanda Jones, center, gets hugs from two of her patrons; some of them called her an “angel.” (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

A temporary solution

At 6:59 p.m. Friday, a friend told the group they could use a community building in the city, owned by his union. It would be unheated until an oil delivery on Saturday, he said, and might not be clean, but Jones accepted the offer.

Antonio Munoz Benton, 48, had only discovered the operation at Yorkship School three days earlier, but he’d immediately seen the difference between this warming center and other shelters.

“Here, it’s a safe environment,” said Benton, a Camden native. “They provide services to actually benefit your life. This place inspires morale, and that makes all the difference in the world.

“It almost makes you remember how it was to be around your family,” he said.

On March 5, 2021, Tawanda Jones, right, prays with volunteers and some of her unhoused patrons in the Yorkship Family School gym in Camden; the group had just learned Jones had found them a place to spend two more nights after their time in the gym had come to an end. (Photo by April Saul for WHYY)

The group prayed, then headed to their new home a few miles away, where Jones had just learned they could stay only until Sunday morning.

What would happen then, no one was sure.

After much sweeping and mopping, the patrons lined their blankets along the walls.

Sarah Ann wore her winter jacket to bed and beamed, covers pulled up to her chin.

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