Homelessness is a growing problem in Western North Carolina, compounded by the difficulty in counting all those who are homeless. That’s been a barrier to resources for those in need.
Living outdoors under a curious collection of tents and tarps isn’t easy, according to Sassy Fulp, but dealing with the wind, the cold and the rain aren’t even the hardest parts of it. “[It’s] people riding by voicing out opinions in accusations and names,” said Fulp. “Pieces of trash, get a job, pick up the trash, drug addicts, thieves.”
Fulp and fiancée Ronnie Hicks, of Waynesville, are used to the insults, which are sometimes accurate and sometimes not. “I become sick with pancreatic cancer and lost my job because of it,” she said. “In the past I have used drugs, but I’m in recovery three years now, but the cancer has kind of put it to where I’m at now.”
The plight of Fulp and others like her is complex and intersectional, which may be why the problem of homelessness in Western North Carolina isn’t going away. “Well it’s growing and it’s growing I think at an exponential rate and it’s starting to overwhelm Haywood County,” said Tom Owens, of Waynesville’s Open Door Ministries. “Not only here at the Open Door, but at the hospital, behavioral health services, the shelter – we’re all overwhelmed, and we’re trying to work together to get a handle on this.”
Resources to combat the problem are allocated in part according to the results of a point in time count mandated by the U.S. Agency for Housing and Urban Development. It’s not too difficult to keep track of people in one of the area’s few homeless shelters, but the problem is that in rural America, it’s hard to get a good idea of exactly how many others fly under the radar, says Down Home North Carolina’s Chelsea White. “And then there’s the unsheltered population. In rural areas these are the folks we don’t see quite as often as they are seen in urban areas because they typically are hidden out in the woods, they’re living in tents,” said White. “Some of them are living in their cars.”
White served as the Haywood County coordinator for this year’s point in time count, held Jan. 30. Last year’s count logged just 95 homeless in Haywood County, but in the face of overwhelming demand for services, leaders of nonprofits geared towards the homeless that total is a quarter to a third of the actual number.
This year, the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness and the WNC Homeless Coalition redoubled their efforts to seek out the homeless on their own turf, which is why volunteers like White and Jesse-Lee Dunlap of the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition took to the tracks, the creeks and the fields on one of the coldest mornings of the year. Some volunteers like Dunlap did indeed find what they were looking for, and, armed with toiletries, winter wear, needles, naloxone and a mobile app designed to gather demographic information, they tried to get to the root of the problem.
“These are just some questions about your health,” said Dunlap to a man she came across living outdoors in Waynesville. “You have mental illness? Chronic pain? Substance use? A learning disability? HIV? PTSD? Physical disability? Traumatic brain injury? And you’re homeless because…”
“I got in a bad relationship.”
“A bad relationship?”
“Yeah, after 13 years she started doing crack and all that stuff. I went along with it about five years and after a while I just got tired, just come out in the woods and stayed. Quit work. Never went back.”
Finding people like the two Dunlap found living in tents near a creek in Waynesville theoretically means more resources for the area’s homeless, including Sassy Fulp. “We need some more resources for this, to help people in these situations,” she said. “There’s a lot of abandoned places, and a lot of places that’s not livable they can be fixed to where people could be living in them.”
Fulp recently received housing assistance, but is still living under that curious collection of tents and tarps because the resources simply are not there. “We have a $500 voucher for each month so it’s just that price range and somewhere we can still be able to walk in the transportation and all,” she said. “No one seems to have the one-bedrooms and if they do, we have a little dog… he’s part of our family. It’s me, Ronnie and Spike.”
The results of this year’s point in time count should be available in the next few weeks.