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Venus Shimko and her 7-year-old son, Brandon, gather in the front entry of the Hospitality House this week. Figures recently released by the federal government show that the number of homeless individuals in northwestern North Carolina grew slightly in 2012. Photo by Kellen Moore

Originally published: 2012-12-13 21:01:06
Last modified: 2012-12-14 09:15:17

Annual homeless count rises slightly

The number of homeless individuals living in northwest North Carolina rose slightly in 2012 from the prior year, mirroring a statewide trend, according to new data released this week.

Approximately 1,319 homeless people were recorded in the northwest region as part of the 2012 “point-in-time” estimate, released Monday by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That estimate represents an increase of 10.6 percent over the previous year for the region, which includes Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey counties.

The “point-in-time” estimate asked communities to conduct a headcount of their sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations as of Jan. 25, 2012. The tally, which plays into the level of grant funding provided, is intended to help understand the scope of homelessness and measure progress toward reducing it.

Lynne Mason, executive director of the Hospitality House, said the count is an important one, but that it also fails to show the successes being achieved and the difficulties of eliminating homelessness in the High Country.

“It’s a snapshot, and they obviously want to see us making progress,” Mason said. “Just because homelessness goes up, it’s not because programs aren’t working. It’s because of a lot of other factors outside our control.”

Taking the count
In this region, counting the number of people in shelters is relatively easy, but discerning the number of homeless people who do not live in a shelter can be difficult, Mason said.

To figure out how many unsheltered homeless people exist, an array of local hunger and crisis agencies will ask their clients where they slept on the night in question and determine whether that location meets the definition of homelessness.

“It’s a challenge in rural areas because in some of the cities, I guess they can go and count people on the streets,” Mason said. “Homelessness is not as obvious here in the mountains.”

Of the homeless in northwest North Carolina, 46 were determined chronically homeless, 321 as severely mentally ill, 273 as suffering from chronic substance abuse, 28 as veterans and 137 as victims of domestic violence, according to the data.

Based on each county’s population, the Hospitality House extrapolated the data to estimate that approximately 289 individuals were homeless in Watauga County as of the 2012 count.

Changing demographics
While the numbers provide an interesting overview, more compelling are the trends the staff is seeing on the individual level.

An increasing number of the region’s homeless are families with children, Mason said.

Those households sometimes have a harder time bouncing back from temporary economic troubles, noted Todd Carter, director of development for the Hospitality House.

The Hospitality House is also beginning to see larger numbers of people seeking shelter who suffer from serious medical or mental health issues, including individuals who may have trouble performing everyday duties such as feeding themselves, dressing or bathing, Mason said.

The shelter recently admitted a man with schizophrenia, but his medication was not well-managed, and he became violent, Mason said.

“That becomes the point where we can’t serve somebody, because we have to serve so many other people here,” she said.

Health-related issues prove difficult for the staff, as they are not permitted to administer medications or provide health care. They can’t transport people suffering a medical crisis, so the shelter has seen an uptick in EMS calls, Mason said.

“We can say, ‘Did you take your pill today?’ but that’s about all,” Carter said.

Attacking the problem
Mason said she was not surprised to see the numbers rise in 2012 because of the economy, unemployment rates and poverty rates in the region.

Reducing the number of homeless people is especially difficult in Watauga County because of the lack of affordable housing, she said.

Even those who are working often can’t afford to live here if they are making minimum wage, Carter said.

“We’ve got a backlog of people waiting to transition out of ‘transition,’ and there’s nowhere for them to go,” Carter said.

And while getting people into their own homes is a worthwhile effort, for others it is not the golden ticket to prosperity, Mason said.

“Those who are dealing with more serious mental health or addiction issues want the stability and predictability that a more community environment provides,” Mason said.

Looking forward
Despite the slight uptick in homelessness numbers this year, Mason said she is encouraged by the success stories of those who are able to rebuild their lives and rejoin the community.

In addition to running a shelter currently at capacity, the Hospitality House has begun on-site GED classes, monthly health assessments and on-site parenting classes. A partnership with Appalachian State University has allowed children at the shelter to attend an afterschool program for free.

Each resident of the Hospitality House will wake up Christmas morning with a gift under the Christmas tree.

In all they do, the Hospitality House staff and volunteers work to be a support system and treat each resident as a valued individual worthy of respect, Mason said.

“(The ‘point-in-time’ count) certainly reinforces that it’s an issue for our seven-county area, and we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” Mason said.