Helping the homeless find a home of their own

As homelessness rises, ministry hopes to build transitional housing

Paul Clark,

A local ministry that serves the homeless in the Swannanoa Valley is hoping to build “transitional” housing for women and children to help them learn the skills needed to find homes of their own. 

Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, the valley’s largest outreach program for people who need help with food, fuel and clothes, has a site in mind and hopes to have plans to take to the Black Mountain Planning and Zoning Board next month, ministry executive director Cheryl Wilson said last week.

If the town approves the plans, the ministry will start raising a yet-to-be-determined amount of money to renovate the existing structure into four apartments for clients and one for an on-site manager, Wilson said.

Last week, Mark McKinley, left, and Bobby Slagle are served by Beverly Highland and Barbara Gaw at the homeless shelter that Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry maintains at First Baptist Church.

“People don’t realize how many families are out there that need a place to live,” she said. “And now that it’s getting cold, we don’t want them out there camping or living in their cars.”

One of those people is Linda Rowe, though because she’s married it’s unlikely that she would benefit from the ministry’s proposed housing. (Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry also operates a homeless shelter at First Baptist Church during the winter months.)

Rowe, 43, and her husband have been living in the Swannanoa area and elsewhere – in their car, in a tent and in motel rooms – for at least a year. And she’s found out it’s expensive being homeless.

“You can’t stay in one space too long, so you’re constantly moving,” Rowe said in an interview in August. “You’re spending money on gas, especially if your car isn’t in good repair. You don’t have a refrigerator where you can plan meals. It costs money to wash at a Laundromat.”

With SVCM’s help, Rowe successfully applied for a job in a nearby town. But she’s still one of the ministry’s clients. She’s still living in her car. It’s hard to save money to get your own place when you're homeless, she said. The cheapest apartment she had found in August was $580 a month. But there was a $500 security deposit and a $200 utility deposit - money she didn't have. She’d considered public housing, but the shortest waiting list she saw was in Mars Hill – three months.

Like Asheville, the Swannanoa Valley is an attractive place to live. That tends to make real estate prices high - the median sale price of a home in Buncombe County is 228,385 so far this year, according to real estate analyst Don Davies. That pushes a lot of would-be homeowners into the rental market, which drives rents up and makes it harder for people like Rowe and the "working poor" to find places they can afford.

Wilson said the homeless may be somewhat invisible in the Valley, but they're all around us because of a variety of reasons – divorce, disability, arrest records, underemployment, poor technical skills and the high cost of housing, among them. First and last months’ rents, plus security and other deposits – “people don’t realize how expensive it is for some people to get into housing,” Wilson said.

Homelessness has become such a big problem in the Valley that the ministry now has a year-round homeless outreach coordinator, Sonny Moore, on the job for more than a year now. This summer he got a call to pick up a young mother and child who had lost the last place they had to live. Moore picked them up in the rain, on the curb with their possessions beside them, Wilson said.

“What happens,” Moore said, “is people fall in a trap.” He mentioned a SVCM client who lost his place this summer and has been spending "every dime he has" to stay in a motel, Moore said. “You pay $75 a night for a motel, within two weeks, all (your money) is gone and you’re back out on the streets, under the bridge and in your car.”

“We’re seeing the tip of the iceberg of homeless people who have reached that point of having nowhere else to go,” he said, emphasizing the last four words. Some of them are “couch surfing,” or moving from couch to couch in friends’ residences. “Those are the ones who, if they cross a line, they get booted out and have nowhere else to go.”

In many ways, Swannanoa has yet to recover from the closing of Beacon Manufacturing, Moore said.

“This was a big industrial area in which generations were raised working in these factories and mills," he said. "Their descendants, this is home to them. They don’t want to go anywhere else. And they will live under bridges and in the woods (to stay here). We’re facing poverty in a major way.”

The ministry has only recently gotten software that allows it to track aspects of the homelessness it sees. But it has data from Buncombe County Schools that shed some light on the problem.

At the beginning of the current school year, Community High School in Swannanoa had 39 students who were homeless. That’s up nine students from the previous school year, according to numbers the ministry shared. Thirty-four of them were not living with a parent or guardian, up from 25 the year before.

Owen District Schools (excluding Community High School) had 73 homeless children at the start of the school year – 20 at Owen High, 26 at Owen Middle, 18 at Williams Elementary and nine at Black Mountain Primary and Elementary. The 74 students was up from the 48 homeless school children tallied during the 2014-15 school year (minus Community High School).

Most children both school years were “doubling up,” according to Wilson’s numbers – sharing space with their families in homes occupied by other families. Five lived in motels and two in shelters when the count was made during the 2015-16 school year, the statistics showed.

By late summer 2017, computer data will likely show a 10 percent increase in homelessness in the Valley, Moore predicted.  

Rowe hopes she won’t be among them, though she and her husband are still living in their car.

During the interview in August, she said she made some poor choices that led to her predicament. “Most of my decisions have been emotional, like a lot of homeless people,” she said. Previously married, she left a job in South Carolina that paid her $14 an hour because she didn’t like facing coworkers talking about her divorce. Her next job paid $4 less an hour, then she found work cleaning in a nursing home for $8.50. Along the way, she was evicted. A diabetic, she got sick.

She and her husband moved into their car, spending the night in various wooded places she didn’t want to name because other homeless people car-camp there as well. But one of them was in Swannanoa, she said.

Recovering from a bout of pneumonia, she was having breakfast in a restaurant one day when someone told her about Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry. That’s where she met Moore, who put her up in a local motel for a night.

“I want to be somewhere before winter because of my health,” Rowe said. The Black Mountain News has been unable to reach her recently to see if she found that place.