On Monday, July 4, a group of teenagers were handing out bowls of ice cream in Pritchard Park. Nothing unusual, really. There’s always something being given away to eat in the park. But I got to talking with one of the teenagers and was directed to Nichole, who filled me in on what was going on.
Nichole told me she is a counselor with the kids, who are participating in The Carolina Cross Connection. The kids, from Concord, N.C., and Asheville, are in town for a week to do a different kind of outreach for the homeless — not the typical we-know-what’s-best-for-you approach that so many groups take. But first, some background.
The CCC has been around for 24 years, focused primarily on home repairs —painting homes and building wheelchair ramps for the elderly and disabled — and helping folks who need a decent, clean, well-maintained place to live in but can’t afford to keep it up.
This year, the CCC staff wanted to do something different. They asked themselves, “What would it look like to serve people with no homes?”
Their search for the answer led them to Brian Combs, pastor of Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville. For two years, Brian has been working quietly with the homeless population here in town. Slowly and quietly, with no fanfare or large base of financial support, he has developed a program that includes a weekly meal, clothing closet and other services all built around a desire to say “yes” to those served.
“Too many other programs have rules, regulations and ‘structure’”, says Combs. “Here at Haywood, we practice saying ‘yes’ to people with needs. Many groups find it’s easier to say ‘no’ to requests because then you don’t have to do anything. You don’t have to get close to people,” he said.
“We believe in an experiential outreach to the homeless. Meeting people where they are, meeting them at their point of need and helping to resolve their needs,” he continued.
Several of the CCC board members traveled to Asheville to meet with Combs and to see the program his volunteer staff had developed. Impressed by what they saw, they felt they had found a direction.
Making use of Combs’ contacts within the community, they came up with a plan. For one month, a different group of CCC campers, counselors and chaperones would come to Asheville for one week and work with the homeless. But they would take a different approach.
Instead of setting around conference rooms and tables talking about what the homeless needed, they would go out into the street and actually meet the homeless and develop relationships with them. “We’re more interested in ‘experiential and hands’ on work versus talking about the problem and looking at pretty power points,” says Combs. “We try to stay away from all the rules, structure and organization that other programs put in place. We’re here to serve people — not the organization,” he said.
While many groups help the homeless, CCC is set apart by the fact that young people focus for a full week on the issue, and their goal is not to change the homeless, but, rather, to change the campers and their beliefs about people who find themselves without a home.
While this was scary at first, some of the campers admitted, noting the stereotypes offered by their middle-income families and by society, they have found that the “homeless aren’t different” from other people. One camper said, “I expected to find them lazy and scary. I found them to be people just like me.” Another camper shared that he had been brought up by his parents not to talk to “those people.”
“I found out that they have dreams and hopes just like I do,” the teen said.
Another participant said, “My view of homeless people has changed. I’m not going to look at a homeless person and see them as smelly and lazy. I’m going to see them as people.”
This week is the second week of a four-week program, with each week open to different campers; interested individuals can still sign up by visiting the CCC website, www.carolinacrossconnection.org.