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Homeless advocates ask Jackson commissioners for help

Homeless advocates ask Jackson commissioners for help

When the days get short and the nights get cold, a collection of Jackson County organizations comes together with the shared goal of getting the county’s less fortunate safely through the winter. Called Jackson Neighbors in Need, the group works to get homes winterized, heat bills paid and — as a last resort — nighttime shelter provided for those who would otherwise be left out in the cold.

Every year, funding is a last-minute nail-biter. In January, Neighbors in Need had feared it would have to start turning people away, telling The Smoky Mountain News on Jan. 27 it had cash for less than two weeks of continued operation. A $15,000 donation from the Jackson County Commissioners kept the organization operating through the end of winter.

Now, with cold weather just around the corner, Neighbors in Need sat down with commissioners to say that, while they’ve got enough money to make it through the coming winter, they’ll need more help from the county if they’re to continue serving the homeless into the future. As a result of that conversation, commissioners are planning to appoint a task force to examine the issue and recommend how the county could be a partner toward the goal of getting homeless people in Jackson County into a more stable situation. 

“We cannot handle the homeless problem in Jackson County,” said Patsy Davis, director of Mountain Projects and chair of the Neighbors in Need board. “We’re too small, we’re too inadequate, it’s too big an issue growing too quickly.”

Neighbors in Need came together as a response to the “baffling numbers” of people seeking help following the economic collapse of 2008. Since sheltering its first person in March 2009, Neighbors in Need has given overnight shelter to 240 people at a cost of $92,307 — for most of that time they’ve given shelter by renting out motel rooms, and the current rental arrangement costs $60 to $65 per night. In addition to the 240 people sheltered, Neighbors in Need has given heating assistance to 363 households and weatherization to 30 households.   

Looking toward winter, said Neighbors in Need board member Eddie Wells, the organization will have enough money to make it through — provided the need isn’t any greater than it’s been in the past — but won’t be in a place to sustain services through future years. 

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“We may not be able to operate at the same level we’ve done in the future because we’re going to run out of money,” Wells said. 

But it’s more than just needing money to fill the gap, Wells said. Some fundamental changes need to be made to the organization’s model. Right now Neighbors in Need is a five-months-per-year endeavor, a finger in the dam to protect people in crisis when all other resources are absent and frosty nights loom. 

That’s not an approach that’s going to solve the real problem, the organization’s representatives told commissioners. 

“You can’t do homeless and really work with homeless without having a case manager because it never stops. You have to get them on their feet and connect them to services, get them some support so they can sustain without continuing to be homeless,” Wells said. “Five months a year is the only time we’re having case management. This is a year-round problem.”

Who’s there to help the family with three kids who find themselves homeless in August? And who’s there to help the family that’s on the verge of finding housing when the cold weather season ends? 

Neighbors in Need’s case manager has been funded by a grant from the Evergreen Foundation, usually for $16,000. At the time of the meeting with commissioners, the organization hadn’t yet heard back about whether they’d be awarded for the coming year, underscoring the need to have a more steady stream of funding so they could better plan and count on the resources at their disposal as nights get cooler. 

In the interim, however, Neighbors in Need has gotten good news — Evergreen funded them for $20,000, a substantially larger grant amount than what they’ve received in the past. 

The timing of grant seasons is another factor in the need for a year-round case manager.  

“A lot of those deadlines are in March or April,” said Marilyn Chamberlain, Ph.D., who is a sociology professor at Western Carolina University and has helped Neighbors in Need with grant writing. “That’s why funding that case management position a full year is so crucial, because they could be spending that time looking for this money.”

In other words, funds for a full-time case management position could beget more funds, as that person could apply for new grants when cold weather subsides. 

However, Neighbors in Need has run up against a giant roadblock during past grant application efforts. 

“One of the huge problems that we run into is that they want us to have a brick and mortar or at least an address and we don’t have either of those things, so it limits the number of foundations we can apply to,” said board member Judy Annis. 

Commissioners were sympathetic to the organization’s struggles but asked for a specific request as to what Neighbors and Need would like to see from county government. 

“What would be the request?” asked Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “What’s it going to take to meet the need and move forward for today?”

“We’re not coming to ask for money,” Wells replied. “We need to partner but we will have to have money next year.”

“Do you have an idea or a ballpark figure that we as commissioners can be thinking about?” asked Commissioner Charles Elders. 

That would depend on what kind of role the county wanted to take, Wells replied. Would the county be interested in funding a full-time case manager? Providing a brick-and-mortar location? 

The other factor to consider, Davis said, is the status of Section 8 housing in the county. The list is currently closed — availability of that type of housing will affect how long homeless families will need to be sheltered in a motel before a more permanent situation is available. 

“It’s really a hard thing to predict exactly what we need,” Davis said. “I think we’ll have a lot better feel after this winter of what exactly we’re dealing with.”

Part of the conversation, McMahan said, will then need to include how the model might change to provide a more robust, permanent solution to addressing homelessness in Jackson County. 

“I think this is just a short-term temporary solution and we have got to move to a more permanent solution that meets the greater need — not just the cold weather but 12 months out of the year,” McMahan said. 

It’s not the first time that Neighbors in Need has approached commissioners about getting itself to a more permanent state. For years, the organization has been searching for a location that could house a homeless shelter and replace the expensive motel model it’s been using so far. In 2015, Neighbors in Need asked commissioners for a lease on the old rescue squad building, which sits along U.S. 23 between Mark Watson Park and downtown Sylva.

That request was ultimately denied. Commissioners weren’t confident that Neighbors in Need was financially stable enough to execute the needed renovations and see the project through to completion. In addition, they’d been bombarded with concerns from downtown business owners as to the image a homeless shelter at the town’s gateway would impart to Sylva. 

The decision not to lease the space earned commissioners some criticism, but during this latest meeting the board expressed willingness to work with Neighbors and Need and consider providing a steady stream of funding to help combat the homeless issue. 

Commissioners are expected to appoint a task force at their Oct. 6 meeting, which will then begin meeting to discuss the path forward.



Lend a hand

Jackson County Neighbors in Need can always use more help toward its goal of helping with emergency shelter, heating and home weatherization needs in the county. To donate, mail checks to Jackson Neighbors in Need, c/o Mountain Projects, Inc., 25 Schulman Street, Sylva, N.C. 28779. Make checks out to “Mountain Projects, Inc.” with “JNIN” in the memo line.

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