Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Beginning in 2019, but especially in 2020, homelessness became a greater challenge in Macon County – but not for expected reasons such as struggling businesses and a shaky economy. Homelessness has increased, yet the number of people Macon New Beginnings (MNB) is helping has decreased due to a housing shortage.
“It’s taking us six, eight, 10 months or more to find places for people to live,” said Bob Bourke, president of MNB. He, along with his wife, Debbie, his 86-year-old mother, Evelyn, and five dedicated volunteers take phone calls from people in need throughout Macon County.
“Housing has dried up, so people are couch surfing, staying with friends, or sleeping in cars, the woods, or tents.”
In 2018, MNB helped 368 people; in 2019, the organization helped 229. So far this year, MNB has been able to help only 133.
The main goals of MNB are to aid the area’s homeless in a variety of ways, but mostly to help them secure a roof over their heads. Bourke and his volunteers process phone calls and paperwork for people in need. Clients undergo a background check and are often directed to appropriate resources for assistance that MNB does not provide such as Appalachian Community Services or Meridian Behavioral Health Services if they are suffering from mental-health-related issues; REACH for domestic violence issues; or, NCWorks or Southeastern Community College (SCC) for assistance with interviewing and securing employment.
But with at least 60% of Macon County made up of “second-home people,” according to Bourke, the local housing market is experiencing an unexpected boon – and that drives property values even higher.
“A few friends decided to sell their homes recently and anticipated needing a few months to a year to sell, but they sold their homes within hours of listing them, and one home sold for $15,000 above the asking price.”
Higher sales prices on homes drive rent prices. Even on a home that has holes in walls and floors and no insulation can cost renters $500 to $800 per month, and landlords are requiring more than just a security deposit because competition is high in the rental market, according to Bourke.
And then there are the chronically homeless that make up about 10% of MNB’s clientele. “Landlords and motels have blacklisted some of them because they have not taken care of the places where they’ve rented. So that makes our jobs harder when they need a place to stay. And with winter coming on, many of these people need emergency sheltering,” said Bourke.
MNB’s volunteers attempt to learn why clients are homeless and ask questions of repetitive clients: “What are you doing differently now than what you were doing the last time you were here?”
“It doesn’t have to be a major step or change,” said Bourke, “but they have to make changes if they are going to improve their lives.”
MNB does not pay clients’ living expenses, fines, etc., but it will temporarily subsidize emergency sheltering, such as when temperatures drop, or assist with getting clients into housing initially and paying some utility bills. Volunteers help clients establish a budget as a necessary life skill.
Many clients seek MNB’s assistance due to job loss or home loss from fire or a natural disaster. Sometimes, in the case of one SCC student, loss of family and income sparked a domino effect and resulted in no incoming support or ability to pay for basic necessities. When the Easter Sunday 2020 mudslides occurred in Macon County, MNB was able to eventually find housing for the individuals affected.
Bourke said he has presented to both the Town of Franklin council and Macon County Commissioners possible solutions to the area’s homeless dilemma, but no overall effort has yet been solidified. “So we are just going to help people as much as we can for as long as we can.”
He asserted, however, that while more housing is needed, the roots of homelessness can and are being addressed by churches, the community, and local officials.
“So many people have been great to us … the police, churches, businesses, people in the community,” said Bourke, “but so much can be accomplished by more people coming alongside the homeless and building relationships to learn what got them where they are and to guide them in the right direction.”
Bourke shared that it took several years of relationship building to get one addicted man into the safety of housing after the man experienced extreme cold and frostbite and had to have some of his toes amputated. “He hasn’t worked out all his issues, but I’ve taken time on this relationship.”
Besides the overwhelming problem of lack of housing, Bourke foresees dropping temperatures – combined with an end to the moratorium on utility bill payments and decreasing COVID-19 aid – to create a “perfect storm” 2021 homelessness crisis. Plus, instead of saving pandemic stimulus money or using it to pay ahead on bills, some clients have squandered their checks.
“I feel like the funds we have right now will get used up quickly if homelessness increases over the coming months,” he said. “Right now the majority of our donations come from seven area churches as well as from individuals and loyal businesses. Donations did slack off for a while because of the pandemic, but they are picking up somewhat. Future donations will help us help the homeless with all kinds of circumstances they might find themselves in.”
Bourke, who founded MNB five years ago but has been involved in the homeless crisis for several years, retired from a career at Drake Enterprises and currently farms his land. “Helping the homeless was not on my bucket list,” he admitted. “But I prayed and prayed for God to lead me and the next thing I knew I was helping homeless folks.”
He pointed out that while the success stories stand out, such as being able to provide “rapid rehousing” without bogging clients down in bureaucracy, the frustrations are many, such as knowing clients are still sleeping out in the elements or in makeshift shelter situations night after night while he and volunteers wait for adequate housing to become available.
To volunteer, learn more, or donate to MNB, call 828-202-3103, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.