With temperatures predicted to get to historic lows once again throughout the week, local churches and organizations are concerned about the homeless population in Macon County.
Determining the actual number of homeless individuals varies from organization to organization based on the definition used. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, homeless is defined as “an individual who lacks housing (without regard to whether the individual is a member of a family), including an individual whose primary residence during the night is a supervised public or private facility (such as shelters) that provides temporary living accommodations, and an individual who is a resident in transitional housing. A homeless person is an individual without permanent housing who may live on the streets; stay in a shelter, or mission, single room occupancy facilities, abandoned building or vehicle; or in any other unstable or nonpermanent situation.”
The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homeless as someone who resides in a place described as:
According to HUD, 610,042 people in the United Sates are considered to be homeless. North Carolina ranks in the top 10 highest number of homeless individuals with a homeless population of 12,168. Only nine states including New York, Texas and California have an overall larger population of homeless residents.
While the numbers vary, Shaina Adkins, Executive Director of CareNet, reports that on average, 25 to 30 homeless individuals seek assistance through CareNet each month. When the weather takes a turn for the worse, and temperatures drop or it rains or snow blankets the county, these individuals scatter to find shelter, as there is no official place within in the county for them to go.
Understanding the need for a shelter and feeling an urgency to help these residents, local community members have come together to form Open Door Ministry. While there are not enough resources for Open Door Ministry to be a permanent solution to the problem, the effort works to provide a safe haven for Macon County’s homeless population on the weekends.
“The Open Door Ministry was started three years ago by a small handful of people at church talking about trying to do something to help the homeless,” explained Wendy Clark, who has been instrumental in finding support for homeless individuals in the community. “With encouragement from our pastor and the benefit of the United Methodist Church being a connectional denomination, it didn't take long to get the invitation out to other UMC congregations in Macon County for a meeting to discuss how we might actually do something.”
Clark explained that soon after starting the discussion, a substantial number of interested folks were ready to formulate a plan. “Our long term goal would be to have a shelter here in Macon County but we knew a first step was needed and we thought we could get started by providing some respite shelter on weekends during the coldest time of the year,” said Clark. “This is the third winter we have been able to open the doors of our fellowship halls from Friday evening through Sunday evening to provide a warm safe place with a clean bed, regular meals, fun activities, access to showers and friendly conversation.”
Currently, four host churches participate in the program, Bethel UMC, Drymans Chapel UMC, Hickory Knoll UMC and Memorial UMC. “We also have support from other churches like Asbury UMC, Clarks Chapel UMC, First UMC and more who do things like providing shower access, provide monetary support and/or conduct fund raisers for the Open Door,” said Clark. “CareNet has also been instrumental from the beginning. They have been the primary contact point to put us in touch with folks who may be in need of shelter and also have served by obtaining background checks on any Open Door guests. The background checks are to protect all involved and are required because all our host sites follow a safe sanctuary policy.”
In attempt to provide more than just a weekend solution, Clark said part of the effort is to learn more about those seeking assistance. “When we do host a guest or guests we try to learn as much about them and their situation as they are comfortable sharing,” she said. “We desire to help beyond the weekend and have actually been able to do things like transport an individual to a shelter in a nearby county, help a family obtain a place to live and get transportation arranged to unite someone with family in another state. We also make available toiletries and clothing when needed. As a way to keep busy and hopefully help some folks during other times of the year we have conducted give-aways where we give away clothes, shoes, toiletries and a grilled burger or hot dog lunch.”
Although she has been involved since the beginning, Clark said it is hard even for her to determine the actual number of homeless individuals in Macon County. “I would just say that it's a lot more than we think. Nobody likes to admit they are homeless so it's really hard to get a count. There are also different levels of homelessness. We know there are people living in cars. Those folks usually like to stay in well lighted areas or near a place with a restroom, places such as a shopping center parking lot, post office, library or hospital. We also have people called couch surfers who sleep on a friend's sofa until they have to move to another sofa somewhere else. I believe we have many people in Macon County doing this.”
According to Rev. Janet Greene, the number of homeless in Macon County appears to be increasing. “I don't know how many homeless people we have in Macon County, but there seems to be more each year,” said Greene. “Statistics tell us many are veterans. Many I meet are dealing with disabling emotional or mental hardships. Life has become overwhelming and the safety nets that used be there, like mental health services and some social services, have dried up ... Some of these folks would have a difficult time holding down a job. Some have difficulty reading or comprehending, having fallen through the cracks in an educational system crippled by poor funding.”
Greene believes the numbers will continue to rise unless complete action is taken. “The real long term solution to homelessness is adequate education and mental health services,” said Greene. “To have these we need to value all people in our society and see that we are connected. We do not live in isolation. When one suffers, we all suffer.”
Through the Open Door Ministry, volunteers encounter individuals who find themselves homeless for countless different reasons and people who are from all different walks of life.
“Two years ago we had a young lady one weekend who had an apartment lined up but could not get into it till a specified date,” said Clark. “She and her baby had been living in their car for two weeks while they waited. I have personally seen people sleeping overnight in their car right here in Franklin. We also have people living in tents. Already this year we have assisted a lady living in a tent. In her case, she would not consider traveling to a shelter because she would not be able to keep her dogs. What we've learned is, every situation is different, every story is unique. The guests we have hosted have really not been the perpetually homeless, (though we do have some in Macon County who are). Some have been folks who lost their job and had run out of money. There were people suddenly homeless because of some family crisis. There have also been folks who simply made some bad decisions and eventually found themselves with nowhere to go. I believe the majority of us could find ourselves in a similar situation much easier than we want to think.”
Clark’s reason for volunteering her time and resources is simple: She doesn’t want to see anyone suffer.
“I, and others, just don't like to see people struggling and/or suffering,” said Clark. “If I'm at home (warm & comfortable) and it's 10 degrees outside, I can't help but think there are people sleeping in tents or their cars. I hate to think some of those people are children. I just want to try and help and to make their life better. I believe it's very clear that God wants us to help those in need. I have an uncle (who I've not seen in many years) that last I heard was living in his car up north. I pray that someone will have the heart to help him and make his life a little better, even if it's only for a night or two.”
Like Clark, Greene has joined Open Door Ministries because she cannot stomach knowing others are suffering. “I am involved with the homeless ministry because I can't imagine what it would be like to be without a warm home, hot shower, permanent address for mail, steady income and plenty to eat,” said Greene. “I have those things. To show thankfulness to God for all that I have, I help those who do not have them. If I just thank God for all I have without working for the benefit of those who do not have them, I am no better than the Pharisee who prays in the Temple giving thanks that God has not made him a tax collector. Gratitude and thanksgiving are not just nouns, they are active ways of living.”
Open Door Ministries is just one piece to the puzzle. As Greene explained, the movement to help Macon County’s homeless population is a joint effort by countless groups and organizations. “A number of groups are working to help homeless people in Macon County. Some feed them, some find warm shelter for them when the weather turns bitter, some clothe them, some provide medical services,” said Greene. “But it must be more than just helping people in crisis. Those who are homeless must be treated with dignity, listened to, welcomed and assisted with integration into the community. Some need folks to walk alongside them to assist with developing decision making skills. Trust must be built, for many have grown wary and some are not easy to love. It is easy to feel overwhelmed when facing the needs of the homeless. It is much easier to ignore them than to make room for them in your life or to work for change in society. But the homeless deserve our time and attention and focus because they are fellow human beings in need of care.”
Open Door Ministries has monthly meetings and anyone interested in helping is encouraged to come. “We get together to talk about the weekends and to plan how we might better help the less fortunate in the community,” said Clark. “Even if meetings are not your thing, there are many ways you can still help, especially when we host a weekend. If an organization or church would like to help host on a weekend that would be great. Open Door Ministry is fully active January and February with host sites scheduled. We may also continue into March so any help is most welcome.”