BY DEBBIE PAGE
To facilitate community and agency awareness, Partners Connect recently organized a “Hunger and Homelessness” Zoom discussion featuring experts from the nine counties which Partners Health Management serves.
PHM Community Engagement Manager Jamie Sales welcomed the 177 participants, including representatives from schools and community colleges, community agencies, hospitals, care providers, and advocates, who chose to engage on theses important topics.
“I know we’re all going through a lot. Our communities have been deeply affected by COVID and other things affecting our nation,” Sales explained. “We all care about the people who are struggling right now.”
PHM Housing Coordinator Teena Wilson, who serves Burke, Catawba, Iredell, Surry and Yadkin counties, said that though the homelessness crisis was huge right now, “we are trying to minimize risk for individuals.”
Wilson noted that the January 2020 point in time count of homeless people in the nine counties PMH serves reached 790, a number which she expects to increase this year. The homeless shelter inventory in those counties does not meet this demand, especially in counties that have no shelter availability at all.
When she gets the call for placement, Wilson looks to meet the challenge of the client’s immediate need for safe housing in a time with reduced space in shelters because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Food insecurity has also increased, but an abundance of federal funds have recently been pushed to address hunger, one positive outcome during the current crisis.
Challenges in services also exist since more homeless are on the streets because of fewer shelter spaces and less agency and soup kitchen access.
However, access has improved since the spring as agencies restructured to safely provide services. Wilson complimented their creativity in adapting to circumstances.
The most pressing challenge right now is a lack of available affordable housing, which too often comes from the eviction of other people who may soon be in crisis if they have nowhere to go.
Even though more housing money is now available to help, Wilson said that finding landlords with safe, affordable rental properties who are willing to partner with them is another obstacle. The scarcity of affordable housing has become an even more glaring need during the pandemic.
“That’s one of the biggest things I would love to see our community focus on going forward is the advocacy for affordable housing,” said Wilson, who noted that most available affordable housing was built in the 1970s boom and is now in need of repair.
“Our housing stock is just really old,” she said.
One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic is that affordable housing issue has been now brought to the forefront, resulting in an influx of money to address the scarcity, but Wilson noted the necessity to collaborate in their nine-county area to use the money to create an effective system for creating housing and to make a real difference.
“The last thing we want to do is to have all this money and waste it,” she said.
Wilson wants to help those in need to access to the continuum of care for coordinated entry to housing, which varies slightly from community to community.
This continuum of care gets help to people “quickly, efficiently, and effectively.” She urged agencies and community members not involved in the continuum to get connected for better collaboration and access to funds.
“Our goal is to move people from homelessness into housing and to make them self-sufficient individuals.”
However, even with subsidies, many units have risen in rent to the point that they are unaffordable.
The continuum also looks at the causes of homelessness — poverty, low income, mental illness, substance abuse, lack of healthcare, the cost of housing, disability, retirement — and works to solve underlying causes of homelessness.
FIFTH STREET MINISTRIES
Michelle Knapp of Fifth Street Ministries, which provides services in Iredell, Davie, Surry, Stokes, and Yadkin counties, averages 100 guests per night in its main shelter and serves 800 people in a normal year. With COVID-19 restrictions, they are now serving only 50 per night.
Their rapid rehousing program is also suffering due to high rental prices and eviction restrictions, which is keeping available housing inventory low. Another obstacle is that some landlords are unwilling to rent to low-income folks.
To creatively meet demand, they are pairing up willing roommates to share rental costs and using CARES Act funds through the HOPE Program to subsidize rent and utility costs. Fifth Street is now processing 550 of the 800 applications for help it received for the program, which is now closed to new applications.
The HOPE program has so far expended over $1 million, which helps landlords, tenants, and the community.
Their Rapid Rehome program serves about 15 families per year. With new money coming from the federal government, the organization hopes to raise that number to 75 to 100 families in the next two years.
Fifth Street’s Back at Home program helps families who are two weeks from eviction. They negotiate with the landlord and provide assistance to prevent eviction and homelessness from occurring.
The organization also has an outreach program to reach the homeless where they are — tents, abandoned buildings, encampments — and offer services for obtaining shelter and to gain self-sufficiency over a two year period.
Fifth Street also serves three meals a day to anyone in the community who is hungry and in
need of a meal. They also provide food boxes for families to take home to prepare meals.
For those experiencing needs ranging from eviction to mental health or substance use services, NC 211 is the best resource to access the help they need. Folks can call that number or go online at https://nc211.org to see the range of services offered.
The website or hotline connects users to income support, food, shelter, clothing and other material goods, transportation, utilities, consumer assistance, legal services, education opportunities, healthcare, and mental health and substance use assistance.
This resource can help plug those in need into the continuum of care resources in their area. The continuum will look at the whole person or family and get them the services to help them with their specific needs.