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Jackson gathers to discuss homelessness

Small groups of residents worked together to determine what they saw as the best approach to helping the unsheltered in Jackson County. Hannah McLeod photo Small groups of residents worked together to determine what they saw as the best approach to helping the unsheltered in Jackson County. Hannah McLeod photo

Last Thursday evening, June 2, residents of Jackson County gathered at Sylva First United Methodist Church to discuss the issue of homelessness and solutions that are best suited to the needs of the county.

“We need to engage the community, not only for support, but also for direction,” said Bob Cochran, executive director of HERE in Jackson County. “We need to develop a consensus in the community for what kind of services we want to offer the homeless in Jackson County. I believe that a homeless shelter is a foundational piece, but there’s a lot of different ways to go about that and we just want to begin to have that conversation and try to generate a consensus among community stakeholders for how we’re going to approach homeless services in Jackson County.”

HERE hired Partners for Impact, a consulting firm that works with communities to find solutions to complex problems. The organization has been holding small group and one-on-one meetings in Jackson County as part of a larger community engagement process, of which Thursday’s meeting was the final piece. At the meeting, attendees were split into small groups and led through exercises to determine their priorities for helping unsheltered people. 

At the end of the 90-minute meeting, each group shared one major takeaway or highlight from their discussion. One group suggested creating a hub of information and resources where a person in need can go to find all resources available, since many of them are offered through disparate organizations. At least two groups highlighted the serious lack of available housing in WNC. One group noted that without community support, little is likely to get done. Another group thought it was important to strike the right balance between proactive and reactive services. 

“I felt like if we could bring in consultants who have done this in other communities and have some experience and some expertise, that they could provide a little better format and facilitation for those kinds of discussions so that it wouldn’t be just a free-for-all or get out of hand,” said Cochran. “I thought they did a masterful job in terms of getting input in a way that could actually be tabulated in the end.”

According to data from HERE, the organization provided emergency homeless services to 197 people — 149 adults and 48 children — in 2021. Families made up one-third of those experiencing homelessness. Of the total population assisted, 30% reported a mental health or substance use disorder, 62% were from Jackson County, 56% had zero income, 23% were fleeing domestic violence and 31% reported a chronic health condition or physical disability. 

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More than 40 people attended the meeting. Members of both the county commission and the Sylva Town Board were present, as well as Sylva Police Chief Chris Hatton, other emergency service workers, faith-based leaders, representatives of organizations already working to assist the unsheltered, and others ready to help. 

“I felt like we had a very good cross-representation of the community,” said Cochran. 

Cochran said one of HERE’s largest stakeholders is the Jackson County government. Partners for impact will compile the information and input from those individual, small group and larger community group meetings. Then, Cochran plans to formally present the outcomes of the entire community engagement process to the county commission. He hopes this will provide input for the decision making process and county support for a homeless shelter. 

“As a representative of local government, this is powerful, when you see who’s here tonight and who is represented,” said Jackson County Commissioner Gayle Woody. 

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2 comments

  • I am the founder of SEASCAT.org which is an organizational member of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Like many trauma survivors, I have been homeless numerous times. Also like many trauma survivors I have never stayed in a shelter when homeless. I am too afraid to be surrounded by strangers, plus hypervigilance keeps me from sleeping at night anyway.

    I look forward to learning more about HERE and plans for Jackson County.

    I am a member of the Speaker's Bureau for NCH and welcome the opportunity to talk about my experiences when homeless.

    posted by Connie Jean Conklin

    Tuesday, 06/14/2022

  • I am the founder of SEASCAT.org which is an organizational member of the National Coalition for the Homeless. Like many trauma survivors, I have been homeless numerous times. Also like many trauma survivors I have never stayed in a shelter when homeless. I am too afraid to be surrounded by strangers, plus hypervigilance keeps me from sleeping at night anyway.

    I look forward to learning more about HERE and plans for Jackson County.

    I am a member of the Speaker's Bureau for NCH and welcome the opportunity to talk about my experiences when homeless.

    posted by Connie Jean Conklin

    Tuesday, 06/14/2022

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