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I don’t really want to go into the domestic circumstances that led up to it, but even though I had no car, no money, no work and now, nowhere to live, I walked down our darkened driveway in the middle of the cold starry night with little more than the clothes on my back.

Worse than the dearth of resources, I had no social support structure, and with no real knowledge of the resources available to someone in a short-term housing crisis, there I was, standing in a Maggie Valley gas station mere moments into Thanksgiving Day, in a short-term housing crisis.

fr circleshopeMonty Williams didn’t know a whole lot about the Circles of Hope program when he sat down to his first training four years ago. All he knew was that he wanted to do something to help people in poverty escape it, and the program had the full endorsement of Mountain Projects Community Action Agency Executive Director Patsy Dowling. 

Time has nearly run out for the beleaguered N.C. Department of Health and Human Services to fix the systemic problems plaguing its food stamp program.

After months of admonishments, the federal government has given the state until Feb. 10 to fix a massive backlog of food assistance applications or risk losing millions in federal administrative support funds.

By Doug Wingeier • Guest Columnist

Back in March, my wife and I, together with a couple from Brevard, paid a visit to Congressman Mark Meadows, R-Cashiers, in his Washington office. We were part of an event called Ecumenical Advocacy Days, in which some 750 members of faith communities from across the country spent a long weekend learning about issues of poverty and hunger, then fanned out across Capitol Hill visiting our legislators to urge passage of a Farm Bill that would:

fr lifeworksAs government aid shrinks and church groups step up to fill the void, the thin and sometimes fuzzy line between church and state has gotten even more complicated.

fr nonprofitfundraisingFrom charity golf tournaments to bluegrass concerts to spare change jars, nonprofits lending a helping hand with heating costs for the needy use a variety of means to get people to pitch in for the cause.

coverIt looked like any wood yard, piles of tree trunks in various stages of processing: long logs still bearing their bark, shorter stacks cut into rounds and neatly split triangles of firewood ready to be shoveled into a piping stove.

But to Richard Reeves, the woodlot at an abandoned factory site in Waynesville, is ground zero in the battle to fight winter’s impending cold.

Business, civic and government leaders from all over Haywood County gathered last week to officially kick off Hunger Free Haywood, a countywide effort to address hunger.

All the collections will stay in Haywood County and be distributed by county food pantries.

Swain County’s Department of Social Services has started cracking down on welfare fraud after seeing a rise in violations.

“We have found that welfare fraud is on the rise,” reported Melissa Adams, a fraud caseworker, who spoke to the Swain County Board of Commissioners last week.

Since March 2011, Swain County DSS has helped prosecute eight cases of welfare fraud, each ranging from $4,500 to more than $24,000 in claims. It is currently conducting 238 investigations into alleged fraud. It is unknown how much money that translates to.

“Our agency has been working diligently in prosecuting welfare fraud,” Adams said.

Most investigations begin with a phone call from a concerned citizen or another agency. Since Jan. 1, the county has received 54 calls about possible fraud and initiated 15 investigations on its own after red flags were raised during the application process.

“We rely heavily on the reports we receive,” said Janet Jones, the chief fraud investigator with Swain County DSS.

Social service agents cited the economy as a likely reason for increase in fraud.

“Truthfully, it is probably the economy. People are struggling and looking for a way to survive,” Jones said. Jones has also started working on fraud cases full-time, allowing her to investigate a claim further to determine if it was a case of intentional fraud.

Sharon Blazer, Haywood County social services’ chief fraud investigator, agreed.

“I think, with the economy and everything, it is on the rise,” Blazer said. “I don’t think it ever stops; I think it just gets worse.”

The number of calls that Haywood County receives regarding welfare fraud varies from month to month. Some of the complaints can be difficult to verify.

Prosecuting welfare fraud can be difficult if the county cannot prove that someone intentionally deceived the system. Either they claim that they don’t have a job or are double dipping into the federal welfare coffers. Some things, like the number of people who live in the home, are hard to substantiate.

“There is not a way for use to actually verify that,” Blazer said.

However, if a discrepancy is found no matter whether it’s intentional, inadvertent or an error made by the department of social services, the person receiving benefits is required to repay the money that they were not supposed to get.

The state of North Carolina has seen an increase in fraud overall as well. As of April 2012, the departments of social services were investigating almost 780,000 active cases.

From October 2011 to March 2012, departments in North Carolina have received more than 11,000 referrals about possible fraud. The claims are equal to about $7.1 million — a more than $1 million increase compared to the same time last year.

Although welfare fraud has been around for as long as welfare programs have existed, people are taking it to a different level to get by, according to DSS investigators.

“Now, it is going a little further,” said Pam Hooper, an investigator with Jackson County’s DSS. “It’s got everything to do with the economy, I’m sure.”

Jackson County saw its highest number of cases, investigating nearly 350, during fiscal year 2010. That number declined to 116 cases the next year, but Hooper said it is a result of policy changes. Welfare programs no longer take into account facts like how much money a person has tucked away in savings or whether they just bought a new car.

“Change in policy has made a big difference,” Hooper said.

In Swain County, Jones said, a new car purchase still sets off red flags and prompts DSS officials to look into that person.

Unlike its neighboring county, the number of cases investigated in Macon has stayed about the same, according to its DSS.

The county is currently investigating 68 cases, equal to more than $45,000 in claims.

A clean-cut looking Perry Matthews walked into the food pantry with a smile on his face. He wore a crisp, light blue, long sleeve button-up and tan slacks. His long, dark hair was pulled into a neat ponytail.

It is easy to mistake him for one of the volunteers who prepares meals or packs boxes with food. But Matthews, a 26-year-old employed chef and cooking teacher, is part of a new demographic of working poor in Western North Carolina.

Six months ago after finding himself struggling, Matthews started picking up food boxes from The Community Table in Sylva.

“Times got hard, and it’s everything I can do to get my rent and bills together,” Matthews said. “The electric bill was taking up way too much.”

For Matthews, meals have become a regular community event. His neighbors also frequent the Community Table for donations. Then they pool their food and cook meals that they all share together.

Matthews is not embarrassed to admit he needs help and suggests that others who are scrambling to pay their bills visit the pantry as well.

“You’re hungry, and they’re giving food. It’s plain and simple,” said Matthews, who is one of 17.7 percent of Jackson residents who in 2011 did not have continuous access to food.

Some first-time visitors are ashamed to come to a food pantry because of the stigma associated with it.

“Poverty has such a stigma, and a lot of people have the ‘blame the victim’ mentality,” said Amy Grimes, director of the Community Table. “There are so many factors beyond people’s control.”

So, the Community Table tries to create a happy, community atmosphere, where people can sit and socialize while waiting for food or collecting their food boxes.

“(People) probably think it’s a sad, downtrodden kind of place. No,” Grimes said. “It’s much more dignified.”

The new visitors are not part of the generational poverty cycle but rather lost their job or face unexpected costs.

“We are seeing a lot more situational poverty,” Grimes said. “People have a medical issue come up, and it turns their entire life upside down.”

Although many people enjoy the three-month summer that a job at a school affords, Martina Maldonado would rather work. Every year when Western Carolina University’s campus essentially closes down, Maldonado, a cook at the college, is unemployed and must used food pantries to compensate for the lack of income.

“Any holiday they close, it happens,” said Maldonado, a Spanish woman whose daughter-in-law translates for her.

Their number one customer, however, is still elderly people and mentally challenged individuals, who are usually both on fixed incomes.

The Community Table used to grow busier toward the end of the month when people’s food stamps ran out but now stays busy throughout since the federal government began staggering its food stamp release. Some people get food stamps at the beginning of the month, and others receive them in the middle or end of the month.

“We are just busy all the time now,” Grimes said.

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