Before we dive into the issue of homelessness and how it’s being handled in Jackson County, it’s important to realize we could be writing a very different editorial today.
We could be writing about the shocking number of people who died of exposure during last winter’s cold snaps.
We could be writing about how little progress is being made in getting people out of shelters.
We could be writing how dealing with homelessness here is wrecking the county budget.
But we’re not, because none of those things are true.
Homeless advocates set out with a goal of preventing cold-weather deaths this past winter. They succeeded.
By the end of the cold season, slightly more than one-third of adults served had cemented permanent housing for the future.
And while costs for the county were not unsubstantial, they weren’t budget-busters.
During the May 14 county commission work session, Bob Cochran, former director of Jackson County’s Department of Social Services and current case manager for the homeless program, told officials 53 adults and 26 children were sheltered during the cold-weather season running from Nov. 18 to March 31. Costs to the county for housing for a total of 1,300 nights of rooms at area hotels ran to around $85,000, although additional costs for case management, food and travel weren’t covered in that figure.
The county covered the bulk of the costs of housing the homeless, with the regional nonprofit Evergreen Foundation, individual donations and help from the Great Smokies Health Foundation and Emergency Food and Shelter kicking in support. Other invaluable allies include Southwestern Child Development, which has collaborated with local organizations such as the Community Table, Mountain Projects, Jackson Transit and Jackson County’s animal advocates to help those in need make it through winter.
Given the numbers, the county’s model of housing people in hotels during times of crisis can be called a success. However, it’s not without drawbacks. Cochran said “Both Jackson County residents who are not truly homeless as well as residents of other locales are drawn to come and stay in our shelter. Additionally, once housed, very few residents are motivated to move from the hotel even when they have the ability to do so. These issues created ongoing challenges for program case management.”
On the plus side, the plan has amenities that might not come with a stand-alone shelter, such as privacy for bathing, room cleaning and breakfast.
The county’s cold-weather model is a stopgap plan. A long-term partner is needed before talks of a permanent homeless shelter proceed, say county leaders.
A long-term solution is needed. That will take a lot of work.
But in the short term, the county and local advocacy groups have done well. We can’t celebrate the end of the war against homelessness.
But we should pause and celebrate the victory of the winter of 2018-19 before moving on to the larger goal.