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Year-round homeless shelter could be in Sylva’s future

fr jax homelessIf all goes according to plan, Jackson County could have a permanent homeless shelter up and running by April. 

That “if,” though, is a big one. Jackson Neighbors in Need hopes to get commissioners’ approval to lease the old rescue squad building on Main Street just past Mark Watson Park and below the Jackson County Library for $1 per year. Then, it will need to raise tens of thousands of dollars to fund renovations and operational expenses, as well as drum up lots of volunteer support. 

Neighbors in Need asked for approval to use the building at the board’s Jan. 29 meeting but was met with a barrage of questions about how much the renovations would cost and where the money would come from. Ultimately, the discussion was tabled for a Feb. 17 work session.

“I get a sense that overall the board seems to be in favor of doing something to help,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “It’s just to take our time and wade through it.”

Counting on volunteer labor for the bulk of the renovations, it would cost about $20,000 to get the building up to scratch, said Rick Westerman, executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Jackson and Macon counties. Renovations could be completed in as little as 30 days, added Case Manager Christina Smith, and it would cost $82,700 to fund salaries and operations for the first nine months. 

But commissioners felt the estimated renovation cost might be a little low, as Neighbors in Need had originally requested approval for a temporary shelter. Now the organization wants it to operate year-round. 

“When you start looking at what the building code requires, permanent use versus temporary uses, it changes a little bit,” McMahan said. “It might mean we need to add sprinklers and a whole bunch of other things that increase the cost.”

Currently, Neighbors in Need — a volunteer organization that addresses fuel, weatherization and shelter needs in Jackson County — puts those in need of shelter up at motels around town. But that’s a Band-Aid more than a solution, and they’d like to have a permanent facility with a program to actively assist residents in getting out of homelessness. So far this year, Neighbors in Need has served 49 people, 18 of them children. 

“For the remainder of this winter, we will continue with the model that we’ve used for the last five or six years, and that is to continue working with local hotels,” said Bob Cochran, director of social services for Jackson County and Neighbors in Need board member. “It is expensive, but we have the funding to finish this winter with that model.”

The shelter, once opened, would have a metal detector and thorough screening for domestic abuse. It would employ a zero tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol and would not allow sex offenders. The shelter staff of three would include a full-time director and case manager as well as two people — one male, one female — to stay at the shelter and work with residents. 

County Commissioner Vicki Greene commented that she’d heard concerns from Sylva businesses about locating a homeless shelter right at the entrance to downtown. Consideration of aesthetics would have to be part of any eventual agreement, Wooten said, but the building has been sitting vacant for years, and this might be a good chance to get it spruced up. 

“A number of folks have looked at it. None have made a serious offer,” Wooten said. “I think this might be an opportunity to get that building back in good shape and revitalized and something the community can embrace.”

The community has definitely been behind the idea thus far, Smith said.

“We already have a lot of furniture, beds that have been donated,” she said. “My office, you can hardly get in it. The community has been amazingly supportive, so there’s not going to be a lot of need to purchase items when we move in.”

But there are still a lot of questions, commissioners said, a sentiment that Greene repeated when asked whether she was in favor of the shelter concept. 

“I’m in favor of getting more answers as to what it will actually take to make this work and where the money’s coming from,” she said. 

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