Homelessness Quietly Increases in Moore
A Christmas tree is more useful as firewood if you're homeless.
While the average Moore Countian celebrates with decorations, carols and gifts, the homeless concentrate on finding a warm place to spend the night -- a car, an abandoned building, even the woods.
In November alone, the Moore County Department of Social Services provided food stamp services to 124 individuals who had no permanent address and thus were designated as homeless.
"That's a shocking number. Where are they?" asks Tim Emmert, community development planner with the Moore County Planning Department.
Because Moore County is a relatively affluent community with a strong rural flavor, the homeless are not as obvious as they are in more metropolitan areas, where they often camp out in parks, on streets and under bridges and fill up shelters.
Then where are they? The homeless are living in cars, abandoned buildings and the woods, often moving from place to place to avoid law-enforcement officers or run-ins with property owners. Some catch rides to Fayetteville and bunk down in a shelter there.
Several institutions and agencies have quickly identified the homeless in our midst.
Emmert has set out to collect statistics. Without some perspective on the scope of the issue, he says it is difficult to address the reasons why so many people live on the edge of society.
The work has just begun with formation of the Advisory Council on Homelessness, charged with the task of determining a more accurate count of the homeless population.
Emmert says the public schools have been tracking homeless children for a number of years, with statistics dating to the 2004-05 school year. The total was 60 that year. It climbed to 146 the next year, dropped to 130 in 2006-07 and was down to 80 last year. The number so far in the current school year is 42 and is expected to climb.
Tracking homeless children in the school population is the task of Tina Kissell, who, among other duties, checks on children who enroll in school but have no permanent addresses on their records.
Homelessness has turned up in the statistical report of the Moore County Veterans Service Office. In his annual report to the Board of Commissioners this year, Veterans Service Officer George Hunt told of referring six homeless veterans to a Fayetteville organization that operates a shelter. Hunt said that when he first assumed his position a number of years ago, he'd never heard of a homeless veteran.
The economic crisis of the past year is a major contributing factor to the growth in homelessness, but apparently the problem reaches back a number of years, as seen in the school enrollment statistics. The return of veterans from overseas deployments, some returning with disabilities, is another factor.
Moore County has had an interfaith coaliton serving homeless families for about 10 years. Formerly known as Sandhills Interfaith Hospitality Network, it changed its name to Family Promise of Moore County early last year.
Susan Bellew, Family Promise executive director, says the nonprofit agency has been significantly busier this year than in previous years. She says the entire spectrum of economic issues has contributed to the causes of homelessness, beginning with the increase in the cost of gasoline and other oil products. Plant closings, layoffs, downsizing and increased food costs are taking their toll.
In 2007 Family Promise accommodated families for 2,357 shelter nights. Through the end of November this year, the agency has provided 3,002 shelter nights.
But Family Promise limits its services to families with specific problems because of limited resources. It does not operate the typical shelter for the homeless. The nonprofit houses families, usually a single mother with children, at one of the 11 host churches with seven other churches providing support in the form of financing and such services as transportation, mentoring and counseling. Thus its service is limited to available accommodations, mostly at large churches with spacious education facilities.
The typical situation is a family left homeless because the breadwinner has lost a job or failed to make a mortgage or rent payment. Another situation is the family that has been staying with a relative, who then becomes ill or dies or for any number of reasons is no longer able to house the family. Most are low-income working people who suddenly find themselves in a financial crisis.
Family Promise operates a day center, where adults receive assistance in a search for appropriate housing or a job search or other services. Transportation is provided to take children to school or to day-care facilities and to take those who have jobs to their workplaces if they don't have cars. Not everyone is jobless, although that situation is growing daily, according to Bellew.
Families usually stay two or three weeks, depending on the time it takes to alleviate their problems. The program alternates between cooperating congregations.
"They're great," Bellew says of the 11 host congregations and seven supporting congregations.
However, the task of finding homes is not easy because affordable housing for low-income people is almost nonexistent, according to Bellew.
Most of the churches are located in Southern Pines, Aberdeen and Pinehurst, but two are in largely rural settings: West End Presbyterian Church and Culdee Presbyterian Church at Eastwood.
Bellew says Family Promise does not keep a waiting list because of the immediacy of the problems families face. Instead, she advises the family to check back in a few days to determine if there is an opening.
Because of staff and accommodation limitations, Family Promise cannot provide for more than three or four families at a time, depending on family sizes. On a recent week, the agency had three families with 10 members, including seven children.
Bellew gets calls daily from anxious families who have no permanent place to stay. She also gets calls from Hoke and Richmond counties, where no such program is available.
The statistics provided by Bellew are official but apply only to the specifications of that one program. It is likely that some of these statistics overlap with those supplied by both the schools and the DSS. Family Promise does not serve individuals, just families.
Overlapping is a major problem but not the only one. Emmert says that although these figures are useful, they are not scientific and do not provide a broad picture of the entire countywide problem.
Diversity is another issue. Friend to Friend, for example, provides temporary housing for women and children who are victims of domestic violence. The nonprofit has been in operation for about 30 years, but its services are limited to a different segment of the population. Nevertheless, the agency meets a need that is aggravated by the same issues causing other types of homelessness, and Friend to Friend is also a participating agency.
Emmert hopes the advisory council will help to eliminate most of that overlapping and will determine the root cause of homelessness. Without more accurate numbers, he says it will be "difficult to convey the scope of this challenge to state and federal agencies, public officials, donors and fellow Moore County residents."
The issue centers on concern for the well-being of fellow human beings, but Emmert admits that there are underlying practical reasons the problem should be addressed. The situation in which homeless people find themselves lends itself to health and safety hazards. They can become ill and spread disease and become a drain on public services.
Emmert says children have been spotted running in and out of long-vacant buildings that may be infested with rats.
Such animal welfare nonprofits as Animal Advocates have reported an increase in reports of abandoned animals because families lose their homes and cannot care for pets. Such groups do not serve homeless humans, but this finding is an example of the ripple effect that homelessness has on the community.
In addition to Family Promise, DSS, Veterans Service, Friend to Friend and the schools, these organizations have been asked to help with collection of accurate data on homelessness: Salvation Army, Coalition for Human Care, Sandhills Center for Mental Health, Bethany House, Bethesda, Moore County Free Clinic, Sandhills Community Action Program, the local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, FirstHealth of the Carolinas/Moore Regional, and Northern Moore Family Resource Center.
Council members include Emmert and Bellew, along with Wanda Feldt, Mary Pat Buie, both of the Sandhills Center for Mental Health, Sgt. Tina Shepherd of the Pinehurst Police Department, and Jonathan Scott, a graphic designer and owner of Lotus Advertising.
Better Ways to Serve
The organization was formed in early fall and members quickly sensed their mutual concern, Emmert says. More than 80 percent of the designated agencies have agreed to report homeless data on a monthly basis throughout the coming year. Others cannot supply data because of confidentiality restrictions or legal reasons.
"It became clear that they deal with a lot of homeless issues and they all want better ways to serve the homeless," Emmert says. "We had a nice interaction of people. Everybody recognized the need."
The group will work to collect accurate data and will also stage a few events in the coming year to increase awareness of homelessness.
The first task is distribution of a survey form by participating agencies in a position to collect information. The form includes demographics, such as age, gender and number of children, but also asks why they are homeless, the frequency of this situation, and what they are doing to address their problem. It asks about their health and job situation and why they have difficulty finding and/or keeping a home.
"That's the first problem. We have a lack of numbers," Emmert says.
Emmert says the next step is that of building membership in the organization and promoting awareness of the problem. He expects that in January the council will have a better grasp of how well the survey is working.
Florence Gilkeson can be reached at 947-4962 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story