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Homeless shelter management decision coming up for Jackson

Homeless shelter management decision coming up for Jackson

The return of warmer weather means that Jackson County’s cold weather homeless shelter has been closed for two months, but commissioners have some tough discussions ahead as they plan what to do when the weather turns chilly once more.

When the fiscal year ends June 30, the Southwestern Child Development Center’s contract as Jackson County’s shelter manager will officially end, and as of yet nobody is in place to take over. 

The SWCDC has managed the shelter since 2017, when its founder Jackson Neighbors in Need passed the baton due to the increased demand on the organization’s volunteer force. But the SWCDC was clear about its intentions — it would take over shelter management as a stopgap measure but would not fill the role permanently. 

This spring, the county put out a request for proposals, inviting all area nonprofits to submit a proposal for shelter management. It received only one proposal in return, from the newly formed organization HERE in Jackson County, Inc.

According to the application, HERE’s board includes Destri Leger of the Center for Domestic Peace and the WNC Homeless Coalition; Monica Frizzell of VAYA Health and the WNC Homeless Coalition; Marilyn Chamberlain of the WNC Homeless Coalition; Kelly Brown of First Baptist Church; and community member Mary Kate Crisp.

Leger said HERE initially formed as an entity to locally administer the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Rapid Re-housing Program, which the SWCDC had been running for the eight western counties but planned not to continue after 2019. But when the group learned that Jackson County needed someone to manage its homeless shelter, it expanded its focus. 

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“Our goal is to continue the homeless program as it is run currently, which is through the hotel model, and moving forward in the coming years as we sit down and focus and make these connections and hopefully partner with the county, part of our vision is to have an actual brick-and-mortar physical structure for Jackson County,” Leger said. 

The proposal requests $245,000 in county funding, of which $179,000 would be spent on salaries and benefits for four employees. That’s substantially more than the $120,000 the county spent on homeless services in the 2019-20 fiscal year. However, Leger said the group expects to negotiate on the price tag. 

“We really wanted to show what a full program at really best practices operational capacity would look like,” she said. “In reality we 100 percent knew we were not going to get $245,000.”

While proposals were due March 31, commissioners have not yet discussed the homeless shelter proposal in particular. HERE plans to present its request to commissioners during a work session at 8:30 a.m. May 23, during the time designated for commissioners to hear from nonprofits. County Manager Don Adams said the RFP deadline was set to match up to the budget process, so commissioners could consider any responses alongside other requests from local nonprofits. 

All five commissioners say that finding a permanent management solution for homeless services is a priority, but none seem certain as to what the path forward should look like. There’s a strong likelihood that decision won’t be made before the 2019-20 budget is adopted. That vote is scheduled for June 18.

“We’re going to go ahead and set aside money in the budget to match what we’ve done for this last year so it would be comparable dollars, and then we’ll just work to try to make sure we have someone in place to manage it whenever the cold weather gets here again,” said Chairman Brian McMahan. 

“I don’t look for this to be solved before the budget passes,” he added.

In addition to the SWCDC no longer being an option as a shelter manager, the county is dealing with the possibility that a grant it’s received for the past several years to pay for case management services might not continue to be awarded in the coming years. 

Bob Cochran, case manager for the shelter and retired director of the county’s Department of Social Services, told commissioners in a May 14 work session that a recent discussion he’d had with an Evergreen Foundation representative indicated the organization would like to see Jackson County stop relying on those funds. 

“She didn’t say this specifically, but I interpreted that they supported our case management salary for about five years now, and I think that she’s kind of giving us a heads up that we need to do in her words what Haywood and Macon are doing, and that is to engage the churches and the faith community,” he said.

“It sounds as if some places have other charitable organizations being more involved with the final solution, and that ought to be something we should continue to work with,” said Commissioner Ron Mau.

Cochran told commissioners that things have been busy at the shelter over the past winter, with 53 adults and 26 children sheltered for a total of 1,379 hotel room nights at a cost of $85,000 between Nov. 8, 2018, and March 31. The shelter has 12 rooms reserved at the Quality Inn throughout the winter, with those rooms consistently full. 

The number of people actually sheltered “does not begin to reflect” the number of people who actually contact Cochran in search of services, he said. 

The hotel model is great for a lot of reasons. The hotel takes care of cleanliness issues and breakfast in the morning, as well as security issues. If someone gets kicked out of the shelter, it’s easy to change the door key to keep them from returning. The individual rooms make it simple to segregate genders and keep children safe. 

However, the model can a “magnet,” Cochran said, for people who aren’t truly homeless, and sometimes the nicer accommodations mean that clients have less incentive to move out. It’s also expensive on a per-person, per-night basis. 

Even for the motivated, moving out can be difficult, because there just aren’t many options for low-income housing in Jackson County — especially for those who have a less-than-stellar rental history. 

“You need a landlord that trusts that you’re going to take care of his or her unit,” he said. “Like one landlord said, no tenant is better than a bad tenant.”

Despite those challenges, the shelter this year got 34 percent of its adult residents into permanent housing. 

“Thirty-four percent are getting permanent housing,” said Commissioner Gayle Woody. “That was really encouraging to me, but then with systemic homelessness that’s where I don’t think we’re addressing that, and we still need to figure out how we can do it.”

For Commissioner Mickey Luker, case management is a big priority. 

“There’s got to be some case management with it,” he said. “There’s got to be some life skills. There’s got to be some assistance. Where does your focus go from here, helping these individuals get back on the right track and become a responsible homeowner or renter?”

The county will need to make some immediate decisions on shelter management that will dictate what the program looks like for the coming winter. But there are longer-term questions as well. For instance, is a brick-and-mortar, dormitory-style shelter something the county should pursue? Should the county continue being the main organizer and funder of homeless services? Or should those services be provided and paid for mainly by nonprofit or faith groups, as in Haywood County? Or, conversely, should the county take the whole operation in-house as a division of DSS? 

“It’s not an easy problem to fix,” said McMahan. “If it was easy to fix, a lot of smart people would have done fixed it.”

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