No easy answers to local homeless problem

By Jesse Campbell -

JEFFERSON-Where are Ashe County’s homeless?

With cold weather setting in, many concerned citizens in the community have began to evaluate what viable options the destitute populous has in securing a warm bed and a hot meal this winter.

Recently released data from point-in-time surveys show that Ashe County’s homeless situation is not unique when stacked up with counties in the region, but what also remains true is the lack of long-term shelter and resources for those who must rely on whatever stop gap is at their disposal to make it through any particular night.

At the core of this problem is the fact that there is only one homeless shelter in the region. The Hospitality House in Boone serves up to seven counties in the High Country. With limited beds, many of the region’s homeless go without necessities on a nightly base.

The true face of homeless in the county is vague and dubious, as well.

According to a point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness by the North Carolina Homeless Coaltion, there are anywhere from 101 to 250 people experiencing the effects of homelessness on any given night in Ashe. The point-in-time count includes people who were residing in emergency shelter or traditional housing or who were unsheltered on the night of the count.

Putting a face to the problem

Many locals have recently taken to social media to voice their concerns about a local military veteran who stands at the corner of the entrance to the Walmart parking lot.

Some say they are genuinely concerned about his provenance and destination, which in turned kicked off a larger conversation about what can be done to help the homeless.

County commissioners have dedicated much of the brainstorming sessions to addressing the needs of the homeless, but the county’s options seem limited.

“Being likely that we are in a serene county, you don’t think about the number of homelessness being high,” said Commissioner Larry Rhodes. “People are out there in their cars, barns or a building.”

The needs of the local homeless have not gone unnoticed, but the options for help do seem limited.

In the latest fiscal year budget, commissioners set aside funds to go to the Hospitality House shelter in Boone.

“We allotted $10,000 or $15,000 this past budget because of the homeless,” said Rhodes. “If they can’t get help in the county, they can get help in Watauga.”

Commissioner Gary Roark estimates that it would take somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000 to construct a homeless shelter in Ashe County.

Such a facility would also have to fall under the regulations of state inspectors, so the cost of upkeep and maintenance could put a tougher tax crunch on a county that already has up to 20 percent of its population suffering from the ill effects of poverty. Even while under the county’s auspices, a shelter could still become very pricey, Roark said.

“It would be nice if we had one,” Roark said of the fleeting possibility of a shelter. “You’d be surprised how many are having a tough time in the county right now. There are folks out there that can’t even afford a Thanksgiving turkey.”

Either way, Roark said he is open to the possibility of helping the homeless any way he can as an elected official whether it’s raising money for a shelter locally or continuing to give funds to the Boone shelter. The only problem with the Hospital House is the limited number of availabe beds at any given time and the inevitability that some of those folks will be turned away.

Roark said the county may want to examine options of grant applications from the state and federal level.

“You won’t get anything if you don’t ask for it,” Roark pointed out.

Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.

By Jesse Campbell

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