After several years of sheltering in-need people during the coldest nights of the year, some volunteers assisting the effort are seeking a more permanent solution to homelessness.
There are no shelters in Brunswick County, and affordable housing is scarce.
So for the past few years, local churches have pitched in to pay for others’ temporary stay at an Oak Island motel as part of the Winter Shelter program put on by Brunswick County Streetreach.
This year, nine congregations are helping through January and February.
Since 2016, the motel has offered up to 10 rooms at a low rate each year during the offseason. The churches, most of which are part of the Southport-Oak Island Interchurch Fellowship, each take one week to cover the cost of the rooms and provide breakfast foods and home-cooked dinners.
As volunteers go door-to-door through the hotel, they sometimes spend time with the guests talking or praying. They’ll ask how they can help. Do they need clothes? Diapers? Food stamps? Repairs to their cars?
Over the years, the churches’ members have seen first hand the reality of homelessness in Brunswick County. Becky Felton, co-chair of the Interchurch Fellowship’s Winter Shelter Committee, has observed it since 2015 when Southport Trinity United Methodist Church housed people in their building.
“People often ask, ‘Do we really have homeless people in Brunswick County? Because we don’t see them,’” Felton said.
She says there are, but they usually don’t fit the stereotype. There are the rare cases of people found sleeping in the woods and a few individuals with disabilities; in most cases, though, people helped at the motel are employed but aren’t making enough to afford a stable residence.
Felton explained in one situation, a woman was working as a live-in caregiver until the client died. She couldn’t afford her own place in the city where she had lived, so she moved to Brunswick County hoping to find a new home and job.
She was hired as a day-time caregiver, but still didn’t earn enough for rent. She spent nights in her car until she entered the Winter Shelter and was able to eventually get a subsidized apartment in the community.
The Winter Shelter is designed to be an emergency refuge where guests are transitioned to more adequate living situations before they check out. People are sometimes transferred to shelters in New Hanover County or in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina area, but if they have children in school or a nearby job that is less of an option.
“Single people, it’s easier to have them relocate,” said Felton. “Families, it’s really, really hard.”
To help families find a place to live, Felton and a group of individuals from seven churches have joined together to tackle what they believe is the reason for homelessness in the area.
Their newly established 501(c)(3) organization, the Brunswick Partnership for Housing, will focus on affordable housing.
“It’s not a homelessness issue; it’s a housing issue,” Felton explained.
She pointed out there are large sums of money being spent on shelter, but those dollars are not solving the problem.
The members of the Brunswick Partnership for Housing are searching for land and buildings to use for transitional housing, particularly for families. Instead of one centralized place, Felton envisions smaller sites spread across the county.
The group is finalizing their legal papers and filling the board of directors. Their funding, so far, is from the Interchurch Fellowship. Soon, they will ask to present to the county commissioners and request some action. One of their wishes may involve a way to better collect data on homelessness.
There are limited statistics on the homeless population in Brunswick County and the numbers from different organizations can sometimes overlap, which obscures the assessment.
It’s known through the most recent McKinney-Vento data, however, there are at least 457 children in Brunswick County Schools who do not have a “fixed, regular and adequate,” place to live. Additionally, in 2017, Streetreach sheltered 131 people for a total of 654 nights.
Brunswick Partnership for Housing is considering some other recommendations for the commissioners, most of which were presented in a 2007 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on workforce housing needs in the county.
“Sheltering is important,” Felton said, “but unless we address the whole spectrum of housing, it’s just going to be a constant battle.”