“Our mission is to keep people from freezing to death,” said Christina Smith, board member and former case manager for the shelter. “If it’s like this in three weeks and we’re having to turn people away and have them live in their vehicles or under a bridge, it’s a huge concern we have. We really need the community to step up and help us.”
As of Jan. 24, Neighbors in Need had only $3,600 left to get it through the rest of the winter, an amount that Mountain Projects Director Patsy Dowling called “incredibly low” for this point in the season. The shelter is open during the winter, typically Nov. 1 to March 31, with $21,400 of the allocated $25,000 already gone. If this year’s per-night average of $280 holds steady, the shelter will be out of cash by Feb. 6.
Numbers of people served haven’t changed all that much since last winter, when Neighbors in Need finished the season with a little bit of unused cash in the account. But hotel prices have gone up, and people seeking help from the organization seem to have a higher level of need this year, according to board member Ginger Hill.
“Several folks that’s come though this year, they have had nothing except the clothes on their back,” said Hill, who is also executive director of the Jackson County Family Resource Center. “No food, no clothing — they have really been homeless.”
Typically, that’s the situation for about half the people who come to Neighbors in Need, with the other half seeking respite from more temporary kinds of emergencies. This year, about three-quarters of clients served — so far, 33 adults and five children — have been completely homeless, requiring a greater influx of resources to stabilize them. Neighbors in Need leaders have applauded the help that’s poured in from the community, but it’s not going to be enough to ride out the winter.
The impending financial crisis has the group thinking hard about the shelter’s future. Right now, Neighbors in Need puts its clients up in hotel rooms overnight. That’s a costly endeavor, with room costs sitting at $65 per night.
“It’s really expensive and it’s not as effective because it’s only short-term, and we have to get people in and out of hotels very quickly because we pay by the night,” Smith said. “That means we’re not able to do as much follow-up case management to ensure their success.”
Over the past couple years, Neighbors in Need has been trying to get a permanent shelter location up and running, a year-round place where people could seek shelter and connect with resources to get back on their feet. Last year, they approached Jackson County commissioners about leasing the old rescue squad building near Mark Watson Park, but commissioners eventually nixed the idea over concerns that Neighbors In Need wouldn’t have the financial resources to pull the project off and that the building’s location at the entrance to downtown wouldn’t be the best place to put a homeless shelter anyway. Commissioners are now discussing leasing part of the building to the American Legion and turning the rest into a community gathering space.
Finding another feasible location for a shelter has proven difficult, with renovations costly and market rate rent too expensive. On top of that, opening a year-round shelter would require a year-round case manager — Neighbors in Need has historically paid its case manager through a grant from the Evergreen Foundation, but that grant pays only for the winter months.
The quest for a year-round shelter has resulted in a chicken-and-egg type of conundrum. Nobody wants to fund a building if there’s no money to staff it, and nobody wants to pay for staffing if there’s not yet a building to be staffed.
“It’s kind of a catch 22,” Smith said.
That quandary has led some to wonder if a permanent shelter is indeed the best way for Neighbors in Need to pursue its mission of protecting people in Jackson County from cold weather.
“Jackson County is not an urban county, and that sort of operation is expensive, and the commissioners have to be judicious in terms of what they invest in,” said Robert Cochran, Neighbors in Need board member and county Department of Social Services director. “You want to address immediate needs like housing, but you also want to address upstream solutions like economic development and bridges from high school into sustainable employment for young people.”
Operating a permanent shelter would be cheaper on a per-person-per-night basis but require a great deal of investment and commitment up front, Cochran said. The question is whether Jackson County is ready for that.
“I don’t know that we know the answer to that,” Cochran said. “I think there’s a lot of interest in developing that, but I think we need to be smart about what we can sustain long-term.”
Not everyone shares Cochran’s hesitance, however.
“At this point, we must have a year-round shelter,” Hill said. “Folks are not homeless just in the wintertime.”
But on the flip side, that’s when homelessness hurts the most, and the folks at Neighbors in Need are just hoping to find funds to stay open until warmer weather returns.
Lend a hand
A night of food, raffles and Elvis aims to raise $25,000 for Jackson County Neighbors in Need on Saturday, Jan. 30, in Sylva.
Charlie’s Challenge — named for the late Charlie McConnell, an advocate for those in need — will start at 6 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Sylva. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is sponsoring the meal and entertainment, which will include an epic performance by Elvis impersonator Harold Schulz.
“It’s going to be an amazing evening, better than we’ve ever had before,” said Christina Smith, Neighbors in Need board member.
The goal is to raise enough money to get Neighbors in Need through an entire season of operating a homeless shelter, paying heating bills and weatherizing homes for those in need next winter. But with the organization running short on cash for the current season, an extra-big influx of support is needed to keep the homeless shelter open through winter’s end while still funding the following year.