By Dave Russell
HERE is here. The Housing Equality Resources and Education organization is set to manage the county’s homeless program, currently offering limited services but with more on the way.
Led by founder and Board of Directors President Destri Leger, HERE is not afraid to set lofty goals.
“We’re looking to end homelessness in Jackson County, specifically by expanding the emergency shelter program and by providing year-round housing-focused case management services,” Leger said. “Our focus is on determining why people have not been permanently housed until this point and what do we do to house them and keep them housed.”
HERE will work with other community organizations and agencies to steer people towards employment and help with mental health and substance abuse problems, Leger said.
“Those are all established so we are not trying to re-invent the wheel,” she said. “We’re focusing specifically on the housing aspect and how do we connect them to resources to make sure they maintain success.”
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners budgeted $130,000 for HERE in its 2019-20 budget. Additional funding, such as grants, will be necessary to accomplish HERE’s goals.
“Historically the commissioners have been the largest supporters of the homeless program,” she said. “A big goal of ours is to bring in the additional resources that are available, but we haven’t had people to apply for them. We’re very heavily focused on bringing in outside resources and building our toolbox off of that.”
HERE is looking for community support, involvement and assistance, especially from faith-based organizations, she said.
“Government and grant money is limited and it usually comes with a lot of strings attached,” she said. “It’s very narrow on who you can help. We don’t want to turn anybody away.”
HERE’s model is going to be different from the other models in the region.
“We’re going to be working off the low-barrier housing model, which says you help people get permanent housing and continue providing support while they work on stabilizing things like their mental health and wellness and sobriety and things like that,” Leger said.
The county has used local hotels to house the homeless in the past, and at least for this coming year, that is HERE’s plan.
“It’s definitely in our plan to expand to a brick-and-mortar shelter model in the future,” she said. “The hotel model is very expensive, and limits the success of our clients because our staff and case management team is not on the premises.”
The organization is in the process of establishing 501(c)(3) status and setting up an office in Sylva’s Eastgate Plaza.
“At this time we are still setting it up with furniture and office equipment,” Leger said. “If somebody needs our services, the best way is for them to contact us and we can set up a place to meet.
“Everything should be fully operational by fall or winter. The plan, if everything keeps progressing as it has, is for us to be running the homeless program this year.”
HERE won’t be dipping into its county money until the fall and winter programs start, Leger said.
“We were really fortunate that Church of the Good Shepherd in Cashiers made a donation to help us provide service until that time,” she said. “So we do have some level of support available between July and October.”
Employment at HERE is still in flux due to the newness of the program, but Leger expects to have three full-time employees.
“I served as the nightime and weekend shelter manager at REACH of Haywood County,” she said. “I started getting involved with the Western North Carolina Homeless Coalition, and am now the regional lead of it for the eight western counties. We provide oversight and assistance to the homeless programs in those eight counties.”
Leger and some others in the coalition felt there was a gap in Jackson County’s homeless program and decided to form HERE. Leger has been involved since its founding, she said.
“Everyone on our board lives in Jackson County, mostly based around Sylva, Webster and Cullowhee,” Leger said. “We are hoping to gain some board members from the Cashiers area, for example, and the north end of the county so we don’t just serve around the county seat.
“Right now we have five board members and we are working on expanding to 10 or 12. We’re doing outreach to add more.”
Leger has served as the outreach and development coordinator for the Sylva-based Center for Domestic Peace. HERE’s board includes Monica Frizzell with Vaya Health; and community members Kelly Brown, Mary Kate Crisp and Marilyn Chamberlin.
Anyone needing assistance or wishing to help or donate can find more information at www.hereinjacksoncounty.org or by calling 357-7259.