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Jackson County Homeless Program Provides Shelter In WNC

Lilly Knoepp
Leah Szittai has been experiencing homelessness since the summer. She sits on her hotel room bed with clothes she has been holding onto for her baby. She is expecting in March.

There aren’t any brick and mortar homeless shelters between Waynesville and Murphy – a gap of around 80 miles. Instead the counties in between operate other types of programs. BPR’s takes us to a new such program in Jackson County:  

Leah Szittai has been experiencing homelessness since this summer. Now 31 years old, she was living in a tent in a friend’s backyard with her boyfriend. 

“It was rough. Really rough,” says Szittai, who is from Michigan but has been living in Jackson County for over 15 years.  

Szittai was the first participant for the nonprofit HERE. That stands for Housing Equity Resources and Education. She’s expecting a baby in March. 

 “Being pregnant right now I definitely would not want to be camping outside right now so I’m glad that they do the hotel program. Because I would be very uncomfortable,” says Szittai.

The organization puts up individuals and families at hotels for 30 days. Robert Cochran is program manager. 

“We have about 25 people in shelter right now at three hotel and two of those are children,” says Cochran.  He explains that this program has grown out of the Jackson Neighbors in need program. It ran for at least the last four years. 

While at the hotel, HERE helps with whatever issues are keeping people from permanent housing. Destri Leger is caseworker and founding member of HERE. She explains: 

“Has someone’s mental health kept them from maintaining housing?  Has maintaining enough income been a barrier? A lack of transportation? Not having a working cell phone. So when they apply for jobs, nobody can get back in touch with them,” says Leger. The list goes on. 

For Szittai and her boyfriend, who wasn’t comfortable talking on mic, that included getting a copy of his birth certificate.  Outside of the hotel program HERE also provides meals, access to cold weather gear, toiletries and many more services like street outreach.

Szittai says she ended up experiencing homelessness because new landlords increased their rent without warning. One factor contributing to housing affordability in Jackson County, is that landlords can get higher rents from college kids attending nearby Western Carolina University. Since then Szittai says it’s been hard to find another affordable place to live.

“Around here there is almost nothing and then the only places are about $1,000 a month and no one can really afford that,” she says. She is looking for a place under $700 dollars.   

HERE has been the official homeless service provider for Jackson County since October. They are already at capacity with their hotel budget. The organization’s total budget is just over $200,000 a year. There are only 3 people on the HERE team not including its board members. Cochran says that they are gathering data and planning for the future. 

That's really a big piece going forward - is to see what does homelessness look like in Jackson County?,” he says. 

 The group is currently looking for a site for a permanent homeless shelter. They hope it will be open in the next few years. 

When temperatures drop below 32 degrees. It is a safety and health risk. Reach out to your county health department or emergency services for information if you or someone you know is in need of shelter. Each county has different types of shelter available during winter.


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.