By Todd Cohen
ABERDEEN, N.C. — Moore County is a region of extremes: Attracting affluent people with its horseback riding and world-class golf courses, the local economy counts mainly on the hospitality and food-service sectors for over one in four jobs, most of them paying low wages.
Eleven thousand people, or nearly 15 percent of the county’s population, live in poverty, and on a typical night, 50 people are homeless, including 11 families.
Yet the rural county faces a critical shortage of affordable housing, says Susan Bellew, executive director of the Sandhills Interfaith Hospitality Network.
In 1999, to address the needs of the county’s homeless, Methodist minister Mark Wethington spearheaded the formation by 10 religious congregations of the Hospitality Network.
An affiliate of Family Promise in Union County, N.J., the network now includes 11 host congregations that provide shelter for homeless families for a week at a time on a rotating basis, while seven support congregations team up with the host congregations to provide volunteers to cook meals and provide transportation for participating families.
Up to 14 individuals in four families spend the evenings at the host congregations, with staffing by volunteers, and during the day can visit the Hospitality Network’s day center at 303 Peach Ave. in Aberdeen.
Families, which can stay in the program for up to 120 days, can work with staff at the day center to find jobs and work on job, parenting, life, budgeting and resume-building skills.
In September 2001, the Hospitality Network also launched a “Wheels to Work” program that places donated cars with low-income workers who need a vehicle to get to and from jobs.
The nonprofit holds the title to each vehicle in a worker’s name and retains a lien for 15 months, during which period the worker must stay employed and pay the Hospitality Network $40 a month, or a total of $600, to defray part of the cost of the program.
When it places a car with a worker, the Hospitality Network pays for the auto tax, title and tags, plus a downpayment on the auto insurance and a warranty for repairs of up to $400 per car.
Since it launched the program, the Hospitality Network has placed 95 cars.
With an annual budget of $125,000, the nonprofit operates with a staff consisting of a full-time executive director, a part-time program director and three program aides who take turns covering the day center on weekends.
The group counts on contributions from its congregations for just over one-fifth of its budget, on donations from individuals for one-third of its budget and on special events and foundation grants for the remainder.
A fund development committee chaired by retired dietician Mary Burgess, who also chairs the board of the Hospitality Network, is developing plans for a special event to raise even more funds.
A key goal, says Bellew, is for individuals to contribute a bigger share of the organization’s budget.
In 2006, mainly in response to aan annual direct-mail appeal, individuals contributed $35,000, up from $16,000 in 2000, when the budget totaled $56,000.
And Stein Mart, which last year opened a store in Southern Pines, has selected the Hospitality Network as the local partner for its “Dignity U Wear” program that provides new clothing for people in need.
Bellew says a long-term goal is to provide transitional housing for families that want to leave the shelter program but are not yet earning enough money to pay for housing on their own.
Developing that program, which would give family members time to obtain a graduate-equivalency degree, driver’s license or job, for example, likely would require a launching a capital campaign and finding housing units the Hospitality Network could rent or buy, Bellew says.
“Everybody deserves a home, particularly children,” she says, “And that drives us to constantly work to provide the best possible services we can for the family.”