"For us, it's not a struggle with affordability ― it's a struggle with accessibility," says Bella Jackson, a board member for Just Economics of Western North Carolina, an Asheville-based nonprofit. She lives in Hillcrest with her husband and two children, and says, “You can't just build housing and expect people to be middle-class. Before we can get there, we've got to look at why things are the way they are.”
For the past 17 years, Children First/Communities in Schools and the Junior League of Asheville have hosted the annual Child Watch Tour to help community members understand, as Jackson explains, why things are the way they are. Last year, the tour focused on the importance of early childhood education, specifically as it relates to the cognitive and developmental changes that occur during the first 2,000 days of a child's life.
This year’s event highlighted the influence that safe, affordable housing can have on children. As part of the day’s events, groups visited the Emma community, Pisgah View Apartments, Habitat for Humanity’s Carney Place and Mountain Housing Opportunity’s Glen Rock Apartments.
“Families with children who are homeless have different needs than single white men who are 50 and homeless,” says Heather Dillashaw, coordinator for the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative. "Housing is the most basic form of health care and wellness that we have, period,” she continues.
But, as Jackson notes, access to housing rarely comes easy. When she moved to Asheville, she was homeless. “You only get two months at the shelter, but it's a six-month wait for public housing,” Jackson shares.
Consequently, she developed a specific skill set necessary to live and survive in poverty ― skills that don't fit on a resume.
“We learned how to find receipts that were paid in cash, return the item and get a little money so we could shower occasionally at a hotel. When we did get into housing, they don't give you money for the bus. All we had was food stamps,” Jackson says. “You have to figure out how to translate your food stamps into bus money.”
These are common challenges Dillashaw sees when helping people out of shelters and cars and into a house or apartment. But for parents in poverty, the circumstances are nearly inescapable, she points out.
“We have parents looking for work, but they don't have anywhere to put their kids. If they're under 5 and they're not in school, the wait for child-care subsidy is more than a year long,” Dillashaw says. “What do you do for a year? Well, there's not a shelter that will take you for a whole year because they don't have the space. What are you going to do? You can't work because you've got to take care of your kid.”
Unfortunately, Dillashaw continues, the stress of an unstable housing situation affects every member of a household, especially its youngest ones. As of May 8, the latest tally, 479 Buncombe County School students are currently identified as homeless, meaning they live in a shelter, in transitional housing, in cars, doubled up with other families or on the streets. Compared to last year, the number represents a nearly 25 percent increase.
Compared to the pre-recession 2006-2007 school year, though, there has been a 389 percent increase.
During the daylong tour, most of the discussion about these issues came from adults — mothers, social workers and and others in the field. However, in a prerecorded video interview, Tyshaun Johnson spoke directly to what it's like living in low-income housing. A rising senior at Asheville High School, he used to live in Hillcrest, and recalls that when trying to do homework, “You would literally be able to hear the conversation of [what's being said] in your neighbor's home. Especially on the weekends, it would get kind of loud.”
The staff member of Youth Empowered Solutions continues, “It was definitely hard to find a quiet place to do work, and that did affect [me] somehow. You get to the point where you don't even want to study anymore just because of how hectic it is.”
Video of Tyshaun Johnson courtesy of Buncombe County Government TV, Youth Empowered Solutions and Buncombe County Department of Health.
This is crucial, Jackson says, because education can be the key out of the poverty cycle.
“A lot of times, our life is very unstable because you're always trying to keep it together. We're just trying to keep our housing. We're just trying to stay out of trouble,” she says.
Dillashaw adds that while people like Jackson try to keep it together, the community must do more to “take a chance” on people living in poverty. “We can't just expect folks who live in a shelter to be able to access all of the services and go out and find that. You can't expect that. It's not fair,” she emphasizes. “We actually are not a community that lacks housing. What we don't have a lot of or enough of is accessible housing to folks who have been in poverty or below the poverty line.”
To view additional documents from the tour, click here.
Caitlin Byrd can be reached at email@example.com, or 251-1333, ext.140.
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