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Wednesday, 30 November 2016 15:57

County, nonprofit work to chart sustainable future for homeless shelter

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Cold temperatures have arrived, but efforts to ensure the future of Jackson Neighbors in Need are heating up. 

After allocating $16,000 to the group last month — on top of the $25,000 granted in the 2016-17 budget — the Jackson County Commissioners are on the verge of appointing a task force to plan a more sustainable future for the nonprofit.

JNIN sounded the alarm last winter, when higher hotel prices and an increased level of need among clients resulted in a cash shortage that threatened to put Jackson County’s only cold weather shelter out of business during the coldest time of the year. Throughout 2016, JNIN leaders have been in serious conversation with the Jackson County Commissioners about how best to continue serving the county’s homeless going forward.

“I just want help,” said Patsy Davis, director of Mountain Projects and a JNIN board member. “Help to find what is going to work in Jackson County. If we see homeless people, how are we going to address this as a county, as a community?”

Currently, JNIN offers shelter only during the coldest months of the year, November through March. Clients are housed at a local motel while JNIN’s caseworker helps them find a permanent situation. That model has its drawbacks. Homelessness exists during the summer months, too, but there’s no shelter then. The five-month model, with the sole paid employee a caseworker funded by a year-to-year grant, makes continuity difficult to achieve. And, on a per-night basis, sheltering people at a hotel that costs $60 to $65 per room, per night, becomes expensive. 

The JNIN folks agree that something has to change — with the funding, with the shelter model, or both.

If use stays level with what the group saw last year, they’ll have enough money to make it through the winter, JNIN board member Eddie Wells told commissioners last month. The commissioners’ additional allocation of $16,000 will allow JNIN to hire two part-time assistant caseworkers in addition to the fulltime caseworker funded by a $20,000 Evergreen Foundation grant. Hiring for all three positions is still in process, with JNIN members hoping to have hires made and personnel in place as soon as possible. 

Over the winter, a group tasked with charting JNIN’s future will be forming. 

“That question that we keep coming back to is, ‘Does this community have a need for a year-round, full-time shelter?’” said Kristi Case, recovery services manager for the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority and a JNIN board member. 

Opinion differs among JNIN board members. Some believe that a brick-and-mortar, year-round homeless shelter is needed to adequately address a growing homelessness issue in Jackson County. Others feel that the hotel model, while it has its limitations, makes the most sense — operating a standalone shelter would bring with it a host of other responsibilities that the group is not yet prepared to shoulder, they say. Or, perhaps, there is some third alternative that will emerge as the best solution. 

The task force will need to resolve that question.

One thing that everybody does seem to agree on, however, is that JNIN needs to have a year-round caseworker position. People who wind up seeking overnight shelter usually have more problems than just that immediate need for a warm place to sleep, and they need a caseworker to guide them toward achieving stability, whether or not winter has ended in the meantime. A year-round employee would also accumulate the institutional knowledge necessary to better work within the existing fabric of community organizations. In addition, he or she could focus on aggressive grant writing during the spring, improving JNIN’s financial position for the following winter. 

“We really need a JNIN person in my opinion,” Davis said. “I can do a little bit, but unfortunately I have a lot of other job duties.” 

The same goes for most of the other people on JNIN’s board. They’re caring, hardworking, dedicated people, but by and large they already have demanding full-time jobs, mostly in the human services field. 

When JNIN first started in 2008, the group’s founding members did not anticipate the level of need that they’re now witnessing each winter. JNIN initially formed in response to the economic collapse, offering heating assistance and home weatherization in addition to shelter for those who had been hit the hardest. 

In the years since, Davis said, the number of homeless seems to be doing nothing but growing. 

“What I hear from the folks who come in and apply for rental assistance (with Mountain Projects), they’re underemployed or when the Affordable Care Act came into play and employers had to provide insurance, some employers couldn’t afford that so their hours got cut,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of different things in the community that influence those resources.”

Commissioners are aware of the problem and eager to help. Both the current board and commissioners-elect Ron Mau and Mickey Luker have expressed support for the organization. 

“I don’t think I have any preconceived notion about what next year will look like other than we will have more help than just Jackson Neighbors in Need,” Davis said. “And we will have our elected officials on board and different people who can help us reach a solution.”

 

 

Help the cause

If you’d like to lend your hand to the task of caring for Jackson County’s homeless, there are multiple ways to chip in. 

• Apply to the task force. The Jackson County Commissioners are currently forming a task force to discuss the county’s homelessness problem and determine what might be the best way to address it. To be considered as a member, contact the county manager’s office at 828.631.2207.

• Donate. Funding is always needed to pay for shelter and meet families’ needs as they seek a permanent housing situation. The organization also spends money on heating assistance and home weatherization. Mail checks to Jackson Neighbors in Needs, c/o Mountain Projects, Inc., 25 Schulman Street, Sylva, N.C., 28779. Checks should be payable to “Mountain Projects, Inc.” with “JNIN” in the memo line.

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