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Homelessness in Ashe: Can a shelter be maintained?

Ashe County is without a homeless shelter. Opinions vary on just how possible
it would be for the county to operate a shelter, whether throughout the year or
just in the winter.

Originally published: Nov. 16, 2011
Last modified: Nov. 16, 2011

Jesse Campbell

(Editor's note: Third in a three-part series on homelessness in Ashe County.)

Homelessness awareness advocates are asking themselves how realistic and viable it is for Ashe County to operate and maintain a homeless shelter that is easily accessible to those in need.

The number of homeless, depending on the time of year statistics are taken and by whom, can vary from as few as 20 to as many as nearly 200. One statistic that does not vary: Ashe County is without a homeless shelter.

Like other volunteers who are working to eradicate the issue, food stamp case worker Brandi Legge believes it will take involvement and participation from all sectors of the community to get the momentum necessary to begin planning for a shelter.

Legge, who works with Food and Nutritional Services with the Department of Social Services, has pondered the shelter idea for some time and while Ashe County is considerably smaller than those larger metropolitan areas that offer these services for downtrodden citizens, she believes it to be a viable option down the road.

Through her work with the FNS office and as a volunteer with the Ashe County Coalition for the Homeless, Legge believes the need for a shelter is a primary solution to addressing the problem long term.


More than a building


The resources necessary to organize a regulated shelter that lives up to state codes could be immense.

In addition to constructing separate quarters for male and female guests, the shelter would have to set firm guidelines on what to do in instances where entire families request shelter and how much food do they provide to those who are destitute, said Legge.

Shelter organizers would also have to take into consideration what their policy should be on accepting single men. Some shelters in Western North Carolina do not accept them.

Those questions, Legge said, are just a few that have to be addressed in the planning stages of developing a strategy for a centralized location.

“We would also need a grant writer to help apply and secure funds (state and federal) that would help support a shelter in Ashe,” said Legge.

A steady flow of grant money — along with support from the community — is how the Hospitality House in Boone sustains itself as a homeless shelter, said Legge, but whatever route Ashe County would take in sustaining a shelter would have to accommodate the specific needs of the community.

For example, Legge believes the community may have to take a more realistic approach when considering building a shelter.

“We could always start small scale and then move forward,” said Legge. “Maybe that means just operating a shelter in the winter months and grow as we need to grow. That would be one of the best ways to start a shelter so as a community, we are not overwhelmed.”

But none of this, Legge said, will be possible without a commitment from the community to get involved.

“We need a lot more participation from the community,” said Legge. “The more people you have, the more people you have to help volunteer.”


Community involvement


Mary Jane Jenkins, executive director for Empowerment Creates Hope Opportunity Ministry and a shelter manager for The Ark in Elkin, agrees. She understands the difficulty in not only generating support for a homeless shelter in smaller communities, but also finding the funding to keep the doors open with the right resources.

“It's really difficult right now,” said Jenkins, noting the recession's impact in the number of people coming in.  “We have a wonderful community that really supports us, but we are hanging on by a shoestring right now.”

The Surry County-based transitional shelter — which opened its doors in March 2000 — accepts references from various state agencies in seven counties, including Ashe and Alleghany.

With only 25 beds at their disposal, Jenkins said the waiting list for the shelter is long, as homelessness does not discriminate based on age, background, race or ethnicity.

“It's all over,” said Jenkins. “If we had 25 more beds than what we do now they would be full by tonight.”

The Ark, which requires temporary guests to be active in the job and housing assistance search to stay eligible for services, currently has 14 families and 16 individuals on the waiting list.

While the shelter does receive state funding for day-to-day operations, including a $10,000 emergency shelter grant from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Jenkins said 85 percent of its budget is comprised of donations and contributions incurred through fundraisers and donations from churches.

“We couldn't make it without the churches,” said Jenkins. “They are very active in our day-to-day operations here.”


Church assistance


Phil Goble, director of another Surry County shelter — The Shepherd's House in Mt. Airy — said it is the high level of commitment from churches, as well as businesses and individuals, that helps them skirt the cumbersome amount of paperwork and “headaches” that come with applying for state and federal grants.

More than 90 percent of The Shepherd's House operating budget ($150,000) comes through donations and contributions from the community, Goble said, which is a welcomed respite from the rigors of grant applications that could disappear with the possibility of a double dip recession.

Some of the churches in Surry County actually make annual contributions to the shelter a line item in their yearly budgets, said Goble.

“Our other shelter, which is a domestic violence shelter, is run almost exclusively on grants so I get to see both sides of that and if it was up to me, I would do both shelters locally (for funding),” said Goble. “There seems to be more of an ownership (feeling) when a community helps. Even though it is our shelter, it's also the community's shelter.”


Planning for the future


Also pivotal to the shelter's sustainability, Goble said, was the planning and preparation put in by the parent organization, the Greater Mt. Airy Ministry of Hospitality. While the shelter opened its doors in 2003, the ministry began the initial planning and “garnering support” in 1999, said Goble.

Goble said it is that same support that is key to any smaller community starting up a shelter for the first time.

“Looking at the way federal and state budgets and grants are going, I would say it would be huge,” said Goble.

Like the Ark in Elkin, Goble said The Shepherd's House requires guests to abide by constructive programs that are designed to assist them in the search for a job and living on their own, as well as utilizing whatever resources they can, like maximizing their Social Security benefits.

Lengths of stay are limited to 90 days and only special exceptions will be made for additional lodgings, said Goble.

Like shelters scattered across this side of Charlotte, lengths of stay, rules and who they serve vary, but regardless of what type of shelter any smaller county decides to open, officials agreed that a proactive approach from concerned citizens would have to lead the charge.

It is because of a lack of full-time shelters in North Carolina that Jenkins said she became entrenched in public awareness to promote that need because she “sees things getting worse before they get better.”

“I'm not a specialist in this field, but I know what it takes to run and manage,” she said. “We need more shelters. Many of the ones in this state are night-time only.”

Jenkins said she is already working with homelessness awareness advocates in Fayetteville in helping them start a shelter and said she is willing to do the same for Ashe County.
“This is my passion,” Jenkins said. “I would also love to speak with churches on how programs work and how they can help the homeless.”


For more information and stories, see Ashe Mountain Times.