By Mitzi Gellman, Executive Director
A near capacity crowd gathered in Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Grace Chapel on March 5th to learn about issues facing Catawba County’s homeless population. Sponsored by Hickory’s Police Department, the event featured a panel of community leaders from nonprofit human services, judicial, police and commercial real estate. Hal Row, WHKY Radio, moderated the community discussion which included panelists’ comments and questions from the attendees.
A HUD required annual homeless census, The Point-In-Time Count, identifies sheltered (living in emergency shelter, transitional housing or Safe Havens) and unsheltered (living in tents, under bridges, etc.) homeless persons on a single night in January. This year’s Catawba County survey identified 310 homeless individuals and provided the data for the community discussion.
When I arrived at the chapel, I was amazed by the size and the diversity of the audience: students and seniors, volunteers and vocational workers, politicians and police, some faces I knew but there were many new faces too. I was reminded how lucky I am to live in a community that cares so strongly for others.
As I listened to the speakers, I realized that there is a much larger group of people who are virtually homeless, yet not included in the count and the discussion. These are the people who regularly visit Habitat for help – the individuals and families forced to live in a relative’s basement or crowd into a single bedroom because they can’t find affordable housing. Or there are others who live in homes, rental or owner occupied, that are substandard and unsafe.
This lack of affordable, safe housing options is one our community’s greatest need. As most communities, the average monthly apartment rent ($683 in Catawba County) far exceeds the average gross weekly earnings ($290) for a minimum wage worker in NC.
Habitat services can’t provide a solution for homelessness, but that doesn’t diminish the dramatic impact Habitat has on people’s lives. Through Habitat’s homeowner program, families are empowered to help themselves by moving into a new and better life. But it’s a long wait: from homeownership application to handing over the front door keys takes nearly 2 years. Families full of hope will continue to live in substandard housing while completing the requirements for homeownership.
As a community we need to remind ourselves that many of our neighbors continue to live in substandard conditions and identify the virtually homeless as well.