WEST JEFFERSON-Ashe County has an unseen problem.
It’s not clearly visible in the avenues of downtown West Jefferson, but its effects are far reaching and long lasting.
You can’t decipher the true scope of the growing trend because it is not as apparent as it is in larger communities were panhandlers line the underbelly of bypasses and street corners begging for spare change, yet local homeless awareness advocates will tell you that this creeping epidemic is there all the same.
In 2015, at least 40 people in Ashe County fell asleep without a permanent roof over their heads.
This number is most likely skewed, however, as the Ashe County Coalition for the Homeless points out that the method in which the federal government calculates the homeless population provides only a bare bones estimates.
In reality, once all children are factored in, the number of homeless could be as high as 140.
But the question remains – where are Ashe County’s homeless?
If they are not bedding down under the even of some business at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Main Street, where can they be found?
David Blackburn, chairman of the ACCH, has an idea.
Because the county does not have a homeless shelter of its own, most of the county’s destitute make the best of the improvised shelter that is available at their disposal.
Some of the local homeless are living in tents. Others take up temporary housing in a dilapidated barn or an unheated house.
“If you go to other cites, you see a lot of them have tent cities (for the homeless),” said Blackburn. “In this county, if you are observant, you can see these folks walking the roads with backpacks. You can also see it in the cars loaded down with clothes and paperwork. There are also places were some of them congregate off the beaten path.”
Regardless of their provenance, most of the county’s homeless have one thing in common.
“They are good people,” added Blackburn. “We have an obligation to help these folks. This is our problem. This isn’t the problem of any other county.”
It is this mindset that led Blackburn and his colleagues to form the county’s coalition for the homeless.
“We felt like that there just wasn’t anyone that was targeting the homeless to get them help,” said Blackburn.
One of the coalition’s first and ongoing goals was the formation of a homeless shelter.
Ashe County doesn’t have a shelter of it’s own, but it is one of seven counties served by the Hospitality House of Boone.
After some research and exhaustion of funding avenues, the coalition found that a shelter just wasn’t financially viable for the tiny nonprofit.
Instead, the coalition discovered that a better use of its services and funding could be utilized by working with hotels, apartment complexes and the Hospitality House to provide temporary housing for this segment of the population
“We also buy gas cards for those traveling who have run out of money,” said Blackburn. “In the wintertime, we also try to get apartments for them to stay in to protect them from the cold. We also provide food them and backpacks that have clothing and hygiene articles.”
Other ongoing projects for the coalition also involves the establishment of a hotline for the homeless that will instruct them where to go for help and the creation of a partime director, who can work toward securing grants to help fund the organization’s work, said Blackburn.
A major component of what the coalition does comes back to public awareness, which has a residual or trickle down effect for those truly in need.
To help continue the conversation on the homeless, the coalition will hold a “State of Ashe Homelessness” discussion at 7 p.m. on April 6 at Midway Baptist Church in West Jefferson. The program is free of charge and open to the public.
For more information, call (336) 846-5631.
Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.