It's early Monday morning, and some 20 to 30 people stand clustered in front of the Eblen-Kimmel Charities, an off-white building tucked back near the West Asheville Sam's Club and the state lottery office. They are male and female, young and old, of differing ethnicities and races. Some carry purses or water bottles; others clasp forms closely to their chest or tap the rolled-up papers against the palm of one hand.
One by one, they approach a man in shirt and tie who checks over those precious clutches of documents.
"Come on. Come on. And how are you today?" he says, quickly scanning each piece of paper before allowing its owner to proceed. But however many people he lets in, the line never seems to diminish, as more keep arriving, on foot or dropped off by car, to join the crowd.
The documents confirm these people's eligibility for help with the most basic of needs. The nonprofit's nutrition program distributes up to 5 tons of packaged food per month to folks who otherwise simply could not afford to eat.
Behind the hype
Glitzy billboards and Tourism Development Authority brochures depict an Asheville with no hint of poverty. But the hard numbers tell a far different story, contradicting the paradisal image that's being peddled nationwide.
As of 2007 (the most recent census figures available), fully 20 percent of the Asheville Metro Area's population was living below the federal poverty line. That means the poverty rate for residents of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison and Haywood counties) was almost 50 percent above the state average of 14.3 percent. And that was before the brunt of the global economic meltdown really kicked in here.
"We were seeing some pretty significant increases before, but the beginning of 2008 is when we really saw the impact start to hit us," notes Tim Rhodes, economic-services program administrator for the Buncombe County Department of Social Services.
Charts provided by the DSS show the demand for assistance skyrocketing. In 2007, 18,021 county residents were receiving food stamps. Currently, that number stands at 29,500 — "and it's going to grow much higher than that," Rhodes predicts. In 2007, the county spent a total of $21 million on food assistance; this year, it's on track to exceed $46 million.
Demand has increased so much, so fast, that agency staff have had to manually write in the current levels, which have broken the scale of the graphs used to measure such expenditures since the late '80s.
It's not just people trying to put food on the table, either. The demand for new adult protective services — people seeking relief from abuse or exploitation — has risen 62 percent over the past two years.
"We're definitely seeing more exploitation cases come in due to the economy," reports Angela Pittman, social-services program administrator at DSS. "Families are moving in together or somebody moves in to take care of their older parent or relative, and if that person has resources, they may use those for purposes other than care."
Meanwhile, the Asheville-based Pisgah Legal Services, which offers free assistance to those who can't afford it, has seen its caseload jump 25 percent compared with last year, with a 54 percent rise in domestic-violence cases and even sharper increases in housing-related disputes. "We see more foreclosures, more homelessness as a result of the housing crisis," explains Communications Manager Katie Miller.
And in domestic-violence cases, adds staff attorney Mae Creadick, "People are waiting longer to leave, until the violence is worse, because … they don't have anywhere to go. They might be facing homelessness for themselves and their children. … Shelters are full, more than we've seen before." And that's not even mentioning the unknown numbers of local folks who are subsisting in intolerable conditions, says Creadick.
"I don't think a lot of middle-class people have a conception of how some people are living," notes Miller. "One of our clients was living in a mobile home that was 30 years old: There were holes in the floor of her kids' bedroom. You can't keep that warm if there are holes in it. There are conditions out there that you can't imagine."
Another client lived in a shed with no bathroom — and was facing eviction from even this, Miller recalls. "The substandard housing conditions people are living in are alarming. … People … have no idea how bad it is."
At the same time, Asheville's unemployment rate remains well below the state average (9.4 percent compared with 11.1 percent), meaning many of the local poor are employed — and still can't make ends meet. According to DSS numbers, 28 percent of local food assistance goes to people working full time, and 69 percent to those with some kind of earned income. Many of these people were already stretched thin, but the recession has pushed them over the edge.
"It's really amazing how the face of those seeking our help has changed," says Pittman. "It's those working people — people who've never had to ask for help before."
Christopher Head has lived in Ashevile for 11 years. The 21-year-old says he's been "marginally employed" at the Carmike 10 movie theater for about a year. Before that he slept on friends' couches for seven months. "It beats being out on the street, but it still sucks," he says with a laugh.
Early last year, he was laid off from his job at the Double Decker Coffee Co. due to flagging revenues. "It was nice; I loved that job, and then winter came," says Head. "They had to let someone go, and I was the least-tenured employee there."
Since then, he's submitted hundreds of applications to local businesses, "going door to door. Most of the places you go there's not a chance in the world, but you still go in, just in case. It's not even about first impressions or resumés: It's about having a friend who can vouch for you, who can get you into the place where they work. That's how I've gotten all my jobs."
Head now lives "in a house with a bunch of friends. … That's basically the only reason I can afford to live in a house right now, because we have a lot of people and so rent is ridiculously cheap."
And though the downturn has certainly hurt, he notes, "Things have always been tight. … At best you're getting by, maybe putting a couple hundred dollars in the bank. But then something happens, and that money has to cover whatever happens."
None of Head's jobs have offered benefits, yet, "I'm fortunate enough to have provided everything I need for myself without government assistance," he stresses. "I've never had food stamps, even though I've been thinking lately that it would be a good idea."
And though he describes his current living situation as "incredibly lucky," there's still no security. Head's previous living situation ended in eviction after he and his roommates had endured "nine layoffs between four people. Even though the rent wasn't that expensive, we didn't have any money. There's no cushion for an emergency.
"That says something about this town," he maintains. "We say we're local here, but we were all working for local businesses, and they just weren't doing well enough to support their workers."
Head says all he wants is "simple, honest work. I don't mind not making very much money, but I'd like to not have to worry about paying rent every single month. I don't feel that these lower-paying jobs are worthless: Someone has to do them. I'm not saying we should make tons of money, but since someone has to do these jobs, they should be able to afford to live [in exchange] for working all the time."
He does think things are picking up "a little — but not as much as they'd like you to believe."
Not so long ago, David Lynch, a self-employed graphic designer, had an office in the Flatiron Building and business was good.
"I moved here in 1997 from Los Angeles; everything was great," he recalls. "When I was on the West Coast, I made it through the Bush I recession. I made it through earthquakes; the Rodney King riots were right at the doorstep of my studio back then. I survived a lot of stuff."
After Lynch moved here, he explains, "I thought I had diversified; I didn't have all my eggs in one basket. I was doing pretty well." Then, about two years ago, "Some of my biggest clients went bankrupt," he recalls. "Chapter 7 for me, too: My business is down more than 75 percent."
The only upside, notes Lynch with a laugh, is that "I have more time." Back then, he often worked 70 to 80 hours a week.
Meanwhile, Lynch's marriage also unraveled. But after he and his wife split up, Lynch tried to hang onto the house they'd bought together only 18 months before. "It seemed like one of us should stay," he explains. "I figured I could keep it for three years, let it build a bit of equity, and walk out of it with what I walked into the marriage with. In the meantime, the house's value plummeted: It probably lost between 10 and 15 percent below what I owed on it."
After trying everything he could think of, including getting a housemate, Lynch went for credit counseling. "I expected they'd say, 'Well, here's how we can help you out; here's how we can negotiate things,'" Lynch recalls. "By then, my business was down about 40 percent but still going. They said, 'Get out from under your house. Short-sell it, and if that doesn't give you enough relief from your bills, then go Chapter 7.' I was dumbfounded — I expected something better."
But Lynch's mortgage, he says, contained a clause enabling the bank to collect the remaining debt — about $40,000 — even after the sale. "That was one of the reasons [for] going into Chapter 7, so they couldn't come after it," he reveals.
These days, Lynch lives and works out of his fiancee's home, making "just enough to trickle by." It's not a situation he's used to.
"I started out being a pretty middle-class guy," notes Lynch. "I was brought up in middle-class suburbs in Los Angeles, always had a certain level of lifestyle it seemed like I would be able to keep for the rest of my life. At least in a big city, when times got tough, bigger companies would try to tighten their belts and [switch to] a smaller design studio like mine.
"There's a couple ways I've had to adapt," he continues. "Learning to live without stuff: You go out shopping, you buy necessities and nothing else."
Still, Lynch says he's "pretty happy. I've learned what I didn't need. But I want to be a more productive member of society. The mainstream media has a lot of stories about the turnaround, but I'm just not seeing it. I'm seeing everyone still struggling pretty hard."
No relief in sight
Local service providers believe the struggles will continue for some time to come.
"We're not predicting much of a slowdown [in demand] in the next two years," Buncombe County DSS Director Mandy Stone reports. "There's one in eight Americans on food stamps; one in four children. You apply those locally and it's not slowing down.
"We've learned we have to be agile," she adds.
And for those on the edge, Asheville's high cost of living and shortage of better-paying jobs deliver a devastating one-two punch — "especially if it's a single-parent household," notes Rhodes.
"We are fortunate, when you look at our unemployment numbers, to be below a lot of counties and states, but we also see people who are underemployed," stresses Stone. "We see a lot of people who are employed in several part-time jobs — frequently unbenefited."
Creadick, too, says, "The majority of [Pisgah Legal's] clients have jobs — they just don't earn much, or it's off-and-on work. … People have had to leave their jobs because of health problems or mental illness they can't afford."
And the DSS's social-work cases, says Pittman, are becoming "more complex, especially around mental health or around services people need but don't have the funds to access. We're finding ourselves supporting families more with concrete means, just to keep kids in good homes. Families and kin are strained now, so they have to rely on us."
Even the area's attractiveness can prove a double-edged sword. "Because it's such a desirable place to live, working-poor families can't afford to live here," says Creadick. "The need for affordable housing is extreme: It's urgent."
Predictably, this is pushing more and more people into substandard dwellings. "I had a client who was living with her 5-year-old son in a house that had one portable heater — so essentially, the whole house was not heated," says Creadick. "Her son and her were sick the whole winter. They had a rat infestation, they had leaks and mold. We ended up suing that landlord to repair all those things, to reimburse her."
The DSS, too, is seeing more formerly middle-class people needing aid. "We've seen numerous folks that have faced foreclosure," notes Rhodes. "Fortunately a lot of them are temporary, but they need assistance while they get back on their feet. It's a completely new face to poverty."
And it can be scary, stresses Creadick, for such people to suddenly confront a whole new set of problems. "Clients who used to be making a good living, lived in a nice house — nicer than any of us have — are going through foreclosure, lost their jobs, now applying for food stamps. They're immediately thrown into needing all these safety nets and not knowing how to navigate them."
Meanwhile, federal and state agencies facing their own budget crunches often pass financial burdens down the ladder, leaving cities and counties that much more strapped. The economic crisis has also wiped out many people's savings, making them more vulnerable.
"During the ice storm, we had families in shelters who, historically, you wouldn't have seen there, because they would have been able to get through it on their own," Stone explains. "If they used to have relatives they could move in with, now those relatives are strained. If we see people without power for five days, people can't refill their food supply. This was a whole new element of the population who are living paycheck to paycheck, with no margin for disaster."
The senior citizen
Marie Messer, 79, has lived in her West Asheville home since 1977. After renting for more than a decade, she and her husband bought the house in 1990. But he succumbed to Alzheimer's and died in a nursing home in 2004.
A former secretary at the Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain, Messer is long retired; her only income is her pension and Social Security. The mortgage payments ate up most of it, leaving little to pay for basics such as food or medicine (at one point, Messer was subsisting chiefly on peanut butter and crackers).
"I was having a hard time making my house payments," she explains. "I worried I was going to be homeless. I couldn't pay my light bill, my water bill, my phone bill. All that was more than I could afford and put gas in my car. Then I had to file for bankruptcy: That cost $1,000."
After trying various social-service agencies in vain, Messer contacted Pisgah Legal. They helped her cut her mortgage payments in half, which she says has made a huge difference.
"I still make it; I'm going on," she says, smiling. "Pisgah Legal called me the other day, asked if I needed anything else. 'Nope, I'm OK now,' I told them."
"It's hard to do anything when you're my age. It's hard to get out of bed in the morning," she adds with a chuckle. "But I'm in good shape for the shape I'm in."
Alicia Martinez had worked at Mission Hospitals for four years, helping families and children with disabilities "navigate the system" to get what they needed, she explains.
But after Martinez lost her job in January and couldn't find another, she found herself having trouble navigating and fell behind in her rent. "In many senses I was like a social worker, helping families, but I didn't know how to help myself," she observes.
Martinez shares her rented Haw Creek home her son, Isaiah, a special-needs child. "There was a time I was wearing earmuffs," she recalls, "because I thought every car that was approaching was the sheriff's deputies coming to evict me."
Two of her co-workers came to her aid. "They called me one day and said: 'Alicia, we are five minutes away from your house. Pick any corner, any restaurant, and we'll meet you there.' I tried to tell them no, but they wouldn't take no for an answer. 'We are not leaving until you come.' At that point I knew I had to get out of the house. They came with a list of resources, people that could help me."
With a boost from Pisgah Legal and the Eblen-Kimmel Charities, Martinez was able to avoid eviction, start collecting unemployment and get food and rent assistance. By the time she went to Pisgah Legal, she was down to half a gallon of gas in her car and $1.50 in her bank account.
Eblen-Kimmel, meanwhile, "found a program for me; I was very, very fortunate," she says. But getting through the hoops to receive those services proved difficult.
"A lot of the agencies are willing to help you, but only if other agencies have already helped you," she notes. "It's like a giant circle."
Martinez says she knows what it's like "to scratch through your jeans and purse, looking for some change, to shop at the dollar store, even though you know the food's not as healthy, because it's better than an empty tummy."
And though she's managed to stay in her home, it flooded last month.
"It's like it just hasn't stopped," she says. "Because of stress, my blood pressure was in the 170s. It was one of those things I had to come to terms with: I can't afford to become sick right now. Not only financially — I've got a child to take care of.
"Look at all this white hair: All of this has been in these three months," she reveals. "There's a shame in society in talking about this that I think we have to get past."
Martinez, though, is happy to share her story and offer what help she can to others because of the incredible generosity she's experienced.
"Yes, agencies can help us, but only so much," Martinez maintains. "Even in my poverty, there's $20 I can donate that can do a lot for a family of four. It means a loaf of bread, a meal, eggs. Even in our lack of money there's always things we can share."
In between job-hunting, Martinez volunteers to help others in need. And despite her undeniable struggles, she emphasizes, everyone from agencies to Evergreen Charter School to the local Hispanic community "has been extremely kind to me. I feel very fortunate how the community has responded."
However dire the situation may be, most local service providers say it's rarely hopeless.
Changes in federal law have raised the earnings ceiling to qualify for food stamps and exempted retirement and investment accounts from asset limits. "The idea," says Stone, "is that Americans losing their jobs don't have to deplete all their resources in order to access services. That's a real change from the old days."
And despite the massively increased demand, she notes, the DSS is managing to turn around requests for help in about the same time (nine days) as it did before the crisis hit, helped in part by electronically submitted forms.
Another new federal law requires landlords whose properties are in foreclosure to let tenants live out their leases. Many poor people have only oral agreements, notes Creadick, but even they now get 90 days to vacate. Additional stimulus funds are helping pay rent, keeping more impoverished people from ending up on the street.
What's more, says Miller, Pisgah Legal has "a lot of success in these substandard-housing cases. If people get to us, if they know we're a free service, we'll enforce the local housing ordinances," she reports. "We'll sue the landlord, in addition to [getting] inspectors breathing down their neck." And if her agency can't help, adds Creadick, Pisgah Legal refers clients to other local nonprofits.
But sadly, stresses Miller, the whole reason these groups exist is that the problems aren't new. "Even in normal, great times, there are plenty of people really struggling."
David Forbes can be reached at email@example.com or at 251-1333, ext. 137.