Homeless shelter sees rise in working poor as season comes to close

Fred McCormick
Black Mountain News
Michael Borders talks to Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry executive director Cheryl Wilson about his efforts to find a home, during dinner at the ministry's shelter on March 27. Borders is one of an increasing number of people in the Valley who work full-time but struggle to afford a place to live.

Car after car drives past First Baptist Church of Black Mountain around 6 p.m. on March 27, as commuters, after finishing a long day's work, head home to prepare for dinner.

Gathered inside of the fellowship hall of the church on Montreat Road are folks who, like those passing by in their cars, have just left their jobs for the day. The members of this group of Swannanoa Valley residents, however, have no place to call home.  

On March 31, Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry wrapped up its ninth winter shelter season, its busiest yet. Of the over 60 people served this year by the program, which is run by SVCM homeless outreach coordinator Sonny Moore, the vast majority are employed.

“We were able to process most of the people who were here the first year I was here into some sort of housing,” said Moore, who has worked for the Black Mountain-based nonprofit organization for four years. “What we’re seeing now is an influx of the working poor.”

SVCM leases the space from the church and opens the room, equipped with beds, showers and a laundry facility, to area residents who don’t have a place to sleep when temperatures are predicted to reach 38 degrees or lower. Volunteers, like those from the Lydia Circle of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church who were present on March 27, provide food for those who show up after the doors open at 5 p.m.

Moore and his team of volunteers provided the service for approximately 110 days this winter. There were 18 people sleeping in the shelter on an average night, according to Moore, and one particularly cold evening the shelter took in a record 27. 

“We really couldn’t do this without the church’s willingness to let us use this space,” said Cheryl Wilson, the executive director of SVCM. “We’re really grateful to them.”

Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry homeless outreach coordinator Sonny Moore welcomes people the fellowship hall at First Baptist Church of Black Mountain on March 27.

A decade ago, a particularly brutal winter pushed Bill Walker, who was on the board of the ministry at the time, and former SVCM director Ranae Brame to open a safe place for homeless people in the area to spend the night.

“That year we had four people in the Swannanoa Valley pass away due to exposure,” he said. “They either froze to death, or passed away due to the effects of living outside. Two of them were in Swannanoa and two were in Black Mountain, and we knew all of them at the ministry.”

SVCM partnered with the church to establish the shelter, which opens every year in November and closes the last day of March. This year over 40 of the people taking up residence in the shelter had jobs.

“They just can’t afford housing,” Moore said. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in rent prices around here in recent years. A lot of people have chosen to, instead of renting out places to live, operate as vacation rentals and rent them on a nightly basis. And the income requirements set forth by a lot of landlords are impossible for the working poor to meet.

“For example,” he continued. “If someone wants to rent an apartment for $1,000 a month, they have to make $3,000 a month to even qualify. That’s becoming more and more of an issue here.”

Ginny Soll, right, and Diane Ginther, members of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church, are two of five volunteers from the church to prepare and serve dinner, on March 27, for the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry homeless shelter that operates during the winter months in the fellowship hall at First Baptist Church of Black Mountain.

Those factors are putting extraordinary pressure on a significant part of the Valley’s population, Wilson added.

“These are people who are working jobs that the community relies on,” she said. “Some of them work at gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores and without them we wouldn’t have those services.”

Many of those people find themselves moving from couch to couch, sleeping in their cars or even in tents while they struggle to save money.   

Michael Borders had been living in his car for about 10 days when he first came to the shelter last November.

“I lost my driver’s license, which was something I screwed up on because I missed a court date,” he said. “I had to pay off fines and  even though I have a job, it's tough when you don't have a place to stay.”

Moore meets with each person who comes to the shelter to assess their needs and help guide them toward available resources. 

Borders, who works full-time, set a series of goals. With a warm place to sleep at night, he began saving his money and paid off his court fees. He secured car insurance and began looking for a place to rent. It took several months to find a place in Asheville to fit his $600 per month budget.

“I pick up my keys tomorrow," Borders said. "I could not have done it without this place."

Borders' story, however, isn’t typical. Most of the people in the shelter face an uncertain future as the season ends, Moore said. 

"You start feeling the concern and seeing an increased anxiety around this time," he said. "You hear questions about where people are going to go, what they're going to do and if we have advice for them. When you're working with a primarily 'working poor' population, it tugs on your heart."

Moore has seen more women staying at the shelter this year, he said, and some mothers will be forced to sleep with their children in tents or cars. 

"We stay in contact with them through the summer," he said of the people who come to the shelter. "They come to the ministry or call us if they need something we can help them with and we help provide them with food at the ministry."

This year the shelter provided over 16,000 individual services for homeless people in the area, according to Wilson. 

"Between meals, laundry, showers, the things we offer there, that's what we were able to provide this winter," she said. "Sonny had over 600 people into the shelter either serving meals of volunteering."

Robin Parish, right, and Lydia Piece are two of over 600 volunteers who have helped at the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry shelter this winter.

Two of those volunteers are Lydia Pierce and Robin Parish. The longtime friends began helping at the shelter last November. 

 "Lydia asked me if I wanted to join her here on Wednesday nights," Parish said. "I said sure."

The two greet people who arrive at the shelter before checking them in.

"We give them coffee, put some snacks out," Parish said. 

"They take showers, so we give them razors, shampoo, conditioner, soap," Pierce said. "They leave their clothes out and we do their laundry."

Pierce and Parish stay until midnight when they are relieved by a SVCM staff member and a volunteer. 

"We spend a lot of our time just talking the people who are here for the night," Pierce said. "We see if we can help them in any way."

The two friends offered to volunteer on the final night of shelter season and plan to return to help next year. 

It's impossible to predict what next winter will bring, Moore said, but the need for the service his program provides will still be there. 

"These people are the backbone of this community," he said. "I feel like it's our responsibility to offer them some sort of shelter and give them the best help we can."