More often then not, homelessness in Ashe County remains hidden. But spend a few minutes speaking with Tommy McClure of the Ashe County Coalition for the Homeless (ACCH) and the severity of the problem becomes clear.
“We’re trying to address a really serious need that I think most people don’t even know exists in this county,” McClure said of ACCH, the non-profit with the mission to coordinate compassionate services for individuals and families who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
While the “stereotypical” image of a homeless person living on the streets can be a reality, he said, often the people ACCH strives to assist are coming from more complicated situations.
“We try to help people, with our limited funds, to get out of an emergency situation,” McClure said.
In January alone, the variety of people in Ashe who sought help from the group ranged from young people to retired residents, living in a range of sub-par housing conditions.
McClure spoke to a young woman who had been displaced from her home by her husband, was living “pillar to post” and had spent the two weeks seeking help while living out of her vehicle.
“She has a four year old child,” he said.
ACCH began by counseling the young woman, helping her to develop a plan that would allow her to take care of her child, and herself.
“We can’t just throw money at the problem,” McClure said, explaining that ACCH’s limited funds would be quickly depleted if they did not help clients, through counseling, to establish a sustainable plan for the future.
Often after the counseling process, the Coalition helps clients by putting them in contact with local charities, churches or individuals who can assist in financial ways that the Coalition can’t.
A married couple, both of whom had been laid off from their jobs in the fall, with two children “sold everything they could” before approaching McClure.
“They dropped television, they dropped their phones, they even sold some of their own clothes to try to make money,” he said.
The family was living off of SNAP benefits and income from odd-jobs. Creditors had offered some leniency, but the electric company could not be put off any longer.
McClure located a church that was willing to contribute money to keep the family’s power and heat on during the frigid month of January.
“Thank God for the churches in this area,” McClure said.
He said there is a broad cross-section of reasons why people in Ashe need help from the Coalition.
“Mental illness is a pervasive problem amongst homelessness in our area,” he said.
One client, living without heat or a means of transportation, was in need of mental healthcare.
McClure was able to get her care with Daymark and find a group of volunteers who donated the funds to pay for the Ashe County Transportation Authority van to take her to and from medical appointments.
“I hope with treatments she can start to turn other things in her life around,” he said.
Other clients fall victim to economic factors; lack of employment and affordable housing, or seasonal factors such as the extreme cold and rising energy and fuel costs.
“We need more jobs in the county, and we need more jobs that low-skilled people can attain and maintain. Housing is also an issue; most of the apartments in the county that are income-based are full.”
McClure said a woman in her late 60’s, with a masters degree, who was laid off from her job shortly after Christmas, called ACCH when she was threatened with eviction from her home and felt that she had exhausted all of her options.
ACCH was able to provide partial payment to defer the eviction process, but also assisted her with a job search and access to employment resources.
“The greatest percentage of people we help are people like her who have done everything right, and are still in this situation, that’s important for people to know,” McClure said.
One major obstacle to the work the ACCH does is the lack of a shelter in the county.
A young man who McClure said illustrates this need moved to Ashe County to work for a farm during Christmas tree season and then found himself living out of his truck, until it got too cold.
He walked into McClure’s office after not eating for a day and half.
The closest shelter, Hospitality House in Boone, which McClure said has been a significant help in the past, will only take people who are from its seven-county region, and the young man was considered a member of the transient population.
“We’ve looked at properties in Ashe [for a shelter], but, to be honest at this point, we wouldn’t be able to fund the maintenance,” McClure said. “That’s why we’re putting in place a plan to get more sustainable funding, possibly through grants. We would like to able to fund a part-time person to take on some of the work the all-volunteer board has been doing.”
Local charities that contribute time, money and resources to ACCH have been able to partially fill the funding void that has plagued the Coalition and numerous other non-profits in the the county.
“We’re not even coming close to meeting the needs in this county, but if it weren’t for the churches and individuals who do help to fund us, the need would be even more dire, and I’m so grateful for that,” McClure said.
He specifically emphasized his gratitude for those that give unconditionally and without qualification.
“I’m really appreciative to the people who don’t expect the people who benefit from their generosity to be perfect enough to ‘earn’ their help. If we didn’t try help everybody who literally ends up out in the cold, regardless of how they got there, what kind of community would we become?”
A tax-deductible donation to the Ashe County Coalition for the Homeless can be sent to P.O. Box 331, West Jefferson, NC, 28694. Information on joining ACCH, which always welcomes new members and volunteers, can be found on its website ashehomelesscoalition.org or by calling (336) 977-5155.
Christina Day can be reached at 336-846-7164 or on Twitter @CDayinWJ