The Ashe County Board of Commissioners, at it’s regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, April 7, was updated on the state of homelessness in Ashe County and the rest of the High Country.
Talking to the Board about the problem was Todd Carter of the Hospitality House in Boone and Michael Lea, the vice chair of the Ashe County Coalition for the Homeless and pastor of West Jefferson First Baptist Church.
According to a “point-in-time” survey done by the state, there are 135 known homeless in Ashe County. Of those, 55 percent of the homeless are children under the age of 18, and 79 percent are women and children, which is the region’s highest percentage.
“I know here in Ashe County, like all of our mountain counties, homeless people are invisible,” Carter said. “They are not outside panhandling in front of Bohemia, they are in barns, sheds and tents.”
The Hospitality House was started in Boone in 1984 and primarily covers Ashe, Avery, Watauga and Wilkes counties. In addition, the Hospitality House also serves Alleghany, Mitchell and Yancey counties.
Carter said in the time since the Hospitality House started, the problem and face of homelessness has changed.
“Homeless people are not who you think they are,” he said. “The stereotype of a smelly, drunk man is long gone. That is a minor fraction of homeless people, especially in Ashe County.”
According to data provided by the Ashe Coalition for the Homeless, only 9 percent of homelessness was caused by drugs or alcohol. The more prominent causes were a loss of job (30 percent) and bills costing more than rent (15 percent).
In addition, 80 percent of people that are homeless will only be homeless at that one point in their lives. Another 10 percent may become homeless again and 10 percent are chronically homeless.
“It is usually just a one-time thing and not something that is repetitive,” Lea said.
Shelter-wise, the Hospitality House is the closest place that provides temporary shelter to Ashe County.
“We are not only a shelter, we are the only place in North Carolina that take families intact,” Carter said. “We want the families to stay together.”
Commissioners had several questions related to the issue of homelessness in Ashe County. Commissioner Gary Roark asked how the Hospitality House handles out-of-state clients.
“The people we serve out-of-state are allowed to stay one night, then we provide a bus pass for them to a different shelter,” Carter said.
Commissioner Larry Rhodes asked if the Hospitality House or Ashe Coalition for the Homeless are considered for monies in the Ashe County Budget, what would they use it for.
Carter said he would like to see all of the counties in the High Country have an emergency shelter which would meet the needs in these counties.
Lea said the Ashe Coalition for the Homeless is focusing its energies on education and fund-raising. Also the Coalition would like to hire somebody to help more with helping the homeless population transition into having a job and permanent shelter.
“We are trying to save some money because ideally we would like to have a coordinator,” he said.
Ashe Coalition for the Homeless
In addition to the Hospitality House, Ashe County has a coalition working to find long term solutions and help for the homeless throughout the county.
“The Homeless coalition was formed several years ago out of people in the community, concerned citizens that there was an issue and there wasn’t a service specifically serving the homeless,” Lea said. “The coalition is trying to fill that gap.”
Every month, the Coalition meets at the Ashe Baptist Association on Beaver Creek Road to discuss how to tackle the issue of homelessness. In addition, members are updated on the families they have helped in the last month.
In March, the Coalition helped five different cases, including helping pay a deposit for one family’s apartment, helping a family affected by a fire be relocated and helping a homeless man receive a bus ticket to Anderson, S.C. where he had family.
“We are trying to educate the community more about the issue, how people can help and trying to raise money to have a more sustainable budget,” Lea said.
Members of the Coalition represent numerous nonprofits including Ashe Really Cares, Smoky Mountain Center, Department of Social Services and different churches and ministries.
In addition to helping those that are homeless get out of the situation, the Coalition also works to prevent homelessness. While the mission and vision of the Coalition is to provide shelter for those who need it, there is currently no priority in having an actual homeless shelter in the county.
“The homeless coalition right now is not set on a shelter becoming the essence of who we are,” Lea said. “A (physical) shelter is not as important as shelter.”
Lea said if a shelter could provide a “means to an end” for what the Coalition is trying to accomplish, it would then be considered, but the Coalition is not able right now to handle running a physical shelter. Right now, the Coalition uses area transitional spaces, such as the Hospitality House and local hotels to provide shelter.
“Right now we are letting the community know that we are a service,” Lea said.
For more information on the Ashe Coalition for the Homeless, visit their website: www.ashehomelesscoalition.org/. For more information on the Hospitality House, visit www.hospitalityhouseofboone.org/
Wil Petty can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @WilPetty.