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Face to face: Local homeless remain elusive

A pair of chairs sits empty in a small homeless encampment in Haywood County. Cory Vaillancourt photo A pair of chairs sits empty in a small homeless encampment in Haywood County. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Huddled together in the dark near an old wood stove beneath an elaborate rigging of tarps and tents on a debris-strewn mucky dirt lot they’d called home for nearly a year, Susan “Sassy” Fulp and her fiancé Ronnie Hicks watched the heavy wet snow fall and felt the waylaid limbs of weary trees crash to the ground until Sassy finally noticed an unusual silence rising from the town around them. 

“When the snow came in and the electric went out,” said Fulp, “I know this kind of sounds harsh, but I looked around at Ronnie and I said, ‘You know what, I’m kind of glad this happened. Now everyone sees what it’s like for me and you every night.’”

Homelessness seems to be getting worse in Western North Carolina, but it’s a complex issue directly related to a lack of affordable housing and health care, a general susceptibility to drugs and crime, a marked scarcity of mental health and addiction recovery resources, and even lingering anti-LGBTQ bias. 

Portioning out resources to deal with the problem has become problematic in and of itself — it’s hard to find people who exist culturally, economically and geographically on the fringes of society and then count them, but it’s even harder when the inherent limitations of the count itself drastically minimize the scope of the problem and therefore the extent of the funding, year after year. 

This year, a concerted effort to go face-to-face with the unsheltered — on their own turf — may change how the growing problem is acknowledged and addressed. 

Winter Storm Diego draped almost a foot of snow across Sassy Fulp’s roof Dec. 9, but that wasn’t even the worst experience she’s had while living in the tent just down the hill from the trendy furniture stores that line Waynesville’s quaint Main Street. 

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Nor was it the morning she and Hicks woke up to 2 inches of water beneath them. 

“Sometimes people just make it a little harder,” she said. “People ride by, voicing out opinions and accusations and names — pieces of trash, get a job, pick up the trash, drug addicts, thieves.”

The epithets are sometimes true, and sometimes not; Fulp said she’s had a history with drugs and is in recovery, but it was ultimately the pancreatic cancer she couldn’t afford to treat that made her lose her job. Her fiancé told The Smoky Mountain News last December that a few traffic citations and a lack of public transportation made it hard for him to seek out employment as a truck driver. 

Such are the amalgamated setbacks that lead more and more people to live lives like Sassy and Ronnie — out in the cold.

“It’s growing, I think, at an exponential rate,” said Tom Owens, executive director of Open Door Ministries in Waynesville. “It’s starting to overwhelm Haywood County, not only here at the Open Door but at the hospital, behavioral health services, the shelter — we’re all overwhelmed, and we’re trying to work together to get a handle on this.”

Seated at a round plastic dining table shortly after 7 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 30, Owens greeted the steady stream of Open Door visitors with first-name fluency — a high-five, or a playful punch in the shoulder on the way to the coffee machine. Most of their faces are familiar to anyone who spends time in Waynesville. 

Not everyone, though, was there for one of the roughly 30,000 free meals the Open Door serves each year in this county of 60,000 people; as much of the nation grappled with a deadly polar vortex that brought arctic temperatures to the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest, a small group of volunteers was getting ready to head out into the relatively balmy 18-degree Haywood County air.

“In rural areas, these are the folks we don’t see quite as often as they are seen in urban areas because they typically are hidden out in the woods, they’re living in tents,” said Chelsea White, of regional advocacy group Down Home North Carolina. “Some of them are living in their cars.” 

White headed up the Haywood County portion of a national effort directed by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development called a “point-in-time” count. 

On the state level, the weeklong effort was coordinated through the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, which further divides the state into several regions, including the eight westernmost counties in North Carolina. 

In each of those counties, organizers created lists of known gathering places for the homeless. 

Armed with a response-based mobile phone app that gathers demographic information like sex, race and reasons for homelessness, Owens and his contemporaries would interview walk-ins, but the success of the count would be largely based on finding those who don’t want to be found. 

By early that afternoon cold sunshine had flooded the brown grassy field, but Jesse-Lee Dunlap still dodged ice-skinned puddles in ankle-deep ruts that rambled their way past red thorny bushes and small, colorful piles of trash.

“I always fear that we’re going to find somebody dead,” said Dunlap, who works in the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition’s post-overdose follow-up program. “I really hope that’s not the case, especially since it was so dang cold last night. And it’s really cold right now. I would hope that people are able to survive this.”

Carrying a tote bag and a backpack full of blankets, scarves, needles and naloxone, Dunlap took part in the count, but it was far from their first foray into the fringe. 

A few years ago, Dunlap started a small nonprofit called Radical Inclusion that evolved into a micro-shelter in their Waynesville home. Dunlap created a food pantry out front, held community suppers and also occasionally delivered necessities to the homeless, including Ronnie and Sassy. 

“That made me realize how big the problem of folks being unsheltered and out there with no resources was in this area,” they said. 

Increasingly, what people like Dunlap — who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community — are also finding is that homelessness hits that particular community much harder. 

“Statistically, for sure,” they said. “You have people who are shoved out of their houses. Why? Because there’s still a mentality of, ‘You’re doing something wrong,’ if you fall into the LGBTQ category.”

Shelters are also ill-equipped to accommodate gays and lesbians seeking services, according to Dunlap, and lodgings are also segregated along binary gender lines so most haven’t even begun to reckon with the needs of the trans community, even in the face of overwhelming demand by non-LGBTQ visitors. 

Gently nudging a sopping-wet sleeping bag with their foot, Dunlap is visibly relieved when it becomes apparent that there’s nobody, and no body, beneath it. Similar to the Harm Reduction Coalition’s needle cleanup this past summer, it’s difficult to say if finding what one seeks is a good or a bad thing — but find anyway Dunlap did. 

Beside a rushing creek on the outskirts of Waynesville, Dunlap came upon a man living with his brother in a pair of wind-whipped tents. Handing him a pair of mittens from the tote, Dunlap began to take the man through a series of questions. 

“You have mental illness? Chronic pain? Substance use? A learning disability? HIV? PTSD? Physical disability? Traumatic brain injury?” 

Born in the swamps of south Jersey, the lanky 61 year old said he’d been homeless for 12 years except for some short stints in jail. 

“And you’re homeless because … ” Dunlap started.

“I got in a bad relationship,” he said, words for the first time flowing freely from his broad, weathered face. “After 13 years, she started doing crack and all that stuff. I went along with it about five years, and after a while, I just got tired, just come out in the woods and stayed. Quit work. Never went back.”

“Do you want to be connected to services that could get you some help?” Dunlap continued. 

He nodded as the umbrella blocking the front of his tent momentarily took flight. 

“What’s the best way to get a hold of you, then?” asked Dunlap, shaking his hand. 

“Here,” he said. “I’ll be here.”

The data gathered by Dunlap and others in encounters like that one are fed instantaneously into a database that is ultimately compiled and then presented to state-level agencies, HUD and Congress.

Those numbers provide some measure of the problem and help determine resource allocation. 

“They’re not the final say, but it’s very difficult to bring money for unsheltered [programs] based on a low count,” said Destri Leger, who served as regional lead for the WNC Homeless Coalition’s eight-county WNC count.

Both Leger, who also works at the Sylva-based Center for Domestic Peace, and Open Door’s Tom Owens said they believe the counts last year were a quarter to a third of what they should be. 

“There are a lot of issues with gathering data in this manner,” said Leger. 

Chief among them are that the count is held but once a year, and always in January; the coldest time of the year is often the only time some homeless will seek shelter, and also often the only time some friends and family might offer it. 

Unfortunately, this year’s point-in-time count was held after the coldest night of the year, which might be why Chelsea White didn’t find anyone in Waynesville’s Chestnut Park around sunrise, and why Jesse-Lee Dunlap found a half-dozen homeless encampments, but nobody home on that sunny, cold, gusty afternoon.

“Unfortunately, in Jackson County, we had five teams that went to 20 different locations where we know the homeless to be living,” said Leger, “but nobody was there.”

The numbers collected on Jan. 30 for the 2019 count won’t be available to the public for a few more weeks, but Leger is hopeful that the “overwhelming community response” to this year’s count will provide more accurate totals. 

“This was the first year that we made a real conscientious effort to get our unsheltered numbers up,” she said. 

Absent the data, Leger believes Haywood’s count could be higher than the 95 logged last year, and that smaller counties like Swain would see gains due to greater participation. 

Hopefully, that translates to sorely needed resource allocations more representative of the intersectional nature of homelessness in Western North Carolina. 

“We have a $500 [housing] voucher for each month,” said Sassy Fulp, who as of press time was still living beneath that circus-like assemblage of water-repellant fabric, despite efforts by the town to enforce zoning ordinances against parcel owner Ron Muse, who refuses to run her and Ronnie Hicks off the tract. 

“No one seems to have the one-bedrooms and if they do, we have a little dog … he’s part of our family. It’s me, Ronnie and Spike,” she said. “We need some more resources for this, to help people in these situations. There’s a lot of abandoned places, and a lot of places that’s not livable that can be fixed to where people could be living in them.”


2018 point-in-time homeless count results, by county

  • County: Number of homeless people 
  • Cherokee: 42
  • Clay: 7
  • Graham: 3
  • Haywood: 95
  • Jackson: 69
  • Macon: 65
  • Madison: 9
  • Swain: 10

Source: NC Coalition to End Homelessness

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