Homeless in focus in Cumberland County

By Todd Cohen

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. –- Denise Giles appreciates the value of a home.

A runaway at age 16, she turned to alcohol and drugs, and by age 30 had been homeless several times, once with her infant daughter.

“I had no control and did not have hope,” says Giles, executive director of the Cumberland Interfaith Hospitality Network, a nonprofit that provides transitional housing and shelter for homeless families with children. “Spiritual poverty is a difficult place to bounce back from.”

Now, as a member of a steering committee that is starting to develop a plan to end homelessness in Cumberland County, Giles aims to give hope in the form of a home to people who need it.

Last January 25, 877 people in the county were homeless, including 321 children, according to a one-day headcount, and the actual number of homeless may have been twice as high, says Giles.

Yet the county on that day had a total of only 128 beds for its homeless population, she says.

Cumberland County is among more than 210 communities in the United States, including 12 in North Carolina, that have created or are developing 10-year plans to end homelessness.

The plans typically call for collaborative, integrated and market-driven strategies to serve the needs of homeless people, and to address the causes of homelessness.

People can be homeless intermittently from problems like domestic violence or the loss of a job, and may need permanent housing and emergency assistance.

Or they may be chronically homeless because of long-term problems like substance abuse or mental illness, and may need stable housing and support services to tackle their problems.

Martha Are, homeless policy specialist for the state Department of Health and Human Services, says the chronically homeless account for only 10 percent to 15 percent of people who are homeless each year but consume 50 percent of existing resources to address the needs of all the homeless.

Developing strategies that address the needs of the chronically homeless, she says, can free up funds to address and raise public awareness of the needs of the intermittently homeless.

Sylvia Ray, executive director of the Women’s Center of Fayetteville and a steering committee member, says she worries that the federal government, which is encouraging communities to develop homelessness plans, has made ending chronic homelessness its priority.

But that “leaves out women and families,” she says, adding the local plan does intend to address their needs.

And she says she fears that any savings from reducing chronic homelessness might not be passed on to help address intermittent homelessness.

Robert Hines, president and CEO of United Way of Cumberland County and co-chair of the homelessness steering committee, says unemployment is the main cause of homeless in the county, cited by nearly half its homeless, followed by underemployment, overcrowding, and alcohol and drugs.

Giles says the temporarily homeless can become chronically homeless through cascading problems such as family violence, depression, substance abuse and a sluggish economy in a region with mainly low-wage jobs.

“Even if people can get back on their feet, the minimum wage is not sufficient to maintain housing in our community,” she says.

Citing her own bouts with homelessness, Giles says rebuilding hope requires combined strategies that address temporary and chronic homelessness and their underlying causes.

At age 30, she says, after being admitted to an emergency room for alcohol poisoning, she entered an in-patient treatment program, and then an out-patient program.

She then earned her high-school equivalency degree, worked as a paramedic, earned her bachelor’s degree from Fayetteville State University, and got a job as a social worker at the nonprofit she now heads.

The group’s board recently hired her daughter, now 27, who has just purchased her own home.

“We’re challenged to look beyond the exterior of who we’re working with and to recognize that there’s potential in every human being,” she says. “This plan is going to design itself to provide the resources to help that potential become a reality.”

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