Outside the box

When 27-year-old Tiffany Simms and her 4-year-old daughter moved to Asheville, they were met with an unexpected and seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

“I had a job that was waiting, but they said that I couldn’t have it unless I had car insurance,” she remembers. “And I didn’t have any car insurance. I didn’t have any money to get car insurance.”

A Department of Social Services caseworker referred Simms to You Stand, a program launched about a year ago by the nonprofit Eagle/Market Streets Development Corporation (EMSDC). You Stand participants have low incomes, are mostly African-American (82 percent) and need help overcoming severe barriers to employment. Most face obstacles such as substance-abuse problems, minor legal infractions, domestic abuse or a lack of education. Other You Stand participants — such as Simms — are simply unsure how to access employment assistance during a crisis.

“Sometimes it helps to have somebody from an organization on your side, you know?” Simms says, recalling her stressful situation, “to kind of help push things a little further.” You Stand helped Simms do just that. EMSDC staff member David Eggleston, himself a You Stand success story, connected her with a resource that paid for the first installment of her car insurance that same afternoon. In Simms’ case, the payment got her a job that kept her from relying entirely on public support.

You Stand was conceived by EMSDC’s board of directors when, as part of its efforts to revitalize the South Pack Square area and decrease local unemployment, it identified a distressing pattern: Buncombe County has a number of successful job-placement, vocational-training and self-employment programs, yet, those resources don’t necessarily reach low-income people who need more intensive, responsive and specialized services. Thus, You Stand — inspired by the idea that even the most disadvantaged person can realize great personal and community potential — was born.

“Early in the program, it was realized that many of the You Stand participants needed help in other areas of their lives before we could discuss job training,” says James Geter, president of the EMSDC board of directors. “What we heard from the community and the program participants was that they needed help in dealing with lifestyle changes, self-esteem, attitude, living conditions, transportation, child care, how to do a job search, how to dress for interviews, how to conduct themselves in an interview and how to prepare a six- and 12-month plan of action.”

Julia McDowell is one of many area residents whom Geter referred to You Stand for such support. McDowell had always had a contentious relationship with her parents, and her marriage did not provide the family harmony she sought. “We were sweethearts from age 15 up until 20-something, when I left him in the middle of the night because he [became abusive],” McDowell says. “It didn’t start until after I had my first child, and then it just got worse.” McDowell raised her three children alone in a neighborhood where, as she puts it, “Drugs was right outside my door.” To make matters worse, she began to develop health problems that limited her job opportunities — at the same time her best friend and support person, Denise Montgomery, was being treated for breast cancer.

Before too long, “I was doing cocaine,” McDowell admits. “I can’t remember exactly how I started or when I started, but I know I did it for … two-and-a-half years.” Together, McDowell and Montgomery eventually helped each other through recoveries of distinctly different sorts. Yet a primary factor in McDowell’s problems — the absence of a reliable support system — still remained. And she continued to lack the income she needed to survive.

To assuage McDowell’s employment problems, You Stand first assessed her skills and preferences. Next, it provided her with a You Stand advisory team made up of volunteers and staff members. Each such team, explains Geter, “is designed and put together to work with the individual to address their particular needs. If there’s a special need that cannot be met by the team, the participant is referred to an agency that is experienced in the area of need, but the person remains under the watchful eyes of the team.”

By these means, all You Stand clients are steered through Buncombe County’s continuum of employment and human-service organizations. This is done in partnership with agencies such as the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, A-B Tech, the Asheville Police Department, Hospitality House, the Buncombe County Department of Social Services, JobLink, Work First, Goodwill Industries, Life on Life’s Terms, Mountain Microenterprise Fund, Mount Zion Community Development, Opportunity Corporation and Varick House.

“We are holistic in our approach to problem-solving,” Geter says. “It’s important to us that every participant feel special, and that when they confide in us, they feel that they are talking to a trusted family member who cares about them.”

For her part, McDowell feels she has been “adopted” by You Stand as she begins to implement her own plan. “Eagle/Market is just like my family now,” she says. “You hear, ‘Oh, you’re doing a good job, Julia, I’m glad to see you’ and stuff like that.” Besides such encouragement, You Stand helped McDowell access resources to buy new tires for her car and provided her with part-time employment and on-the-job training at EMSDC’s office.

She’s now looking for a job as an administrative assistant that will pay her a living wage and enable her to utilize her new data-processing and Internet skills. With her newfound computer savvy, McDowell was able to research her health issues on the Internet; that, in turn, helped her realized that she can do more herself to address those problems.

Her friend Montgomery notices the change. “I just can’t believe it,” Montgomery remarks. “She knows they will help her accomplish her goals. I notice her [increased] drive to go after whatever she’s looking for.”

But the You Stand approach doesn’t always produce quick results. Many You Stand clients have been rejected by other programs due to the significant challenges they face, and setbacks can be frequent. But for many participants, the You Stand advisory team is a new constant in their lives that supports them through the job search and beyond. Though this takes time, the impact on the individual and the savings in public funds (by avoiding incarceration, rehabilitation and other costs) can be tremendous.

Elizabeth Russell, EMSDC’s executive director, believes that You Stand’s commitment to each individual is the reason for the organization’s rapid growth. The program started with 10 active participants; about a year later, more than 120 people are in the program (and about 75 others have expressed interest). “I never dreamed the response to You Stand by the community agencies would be what it has been,” Russell says. (You Stand receives funding from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Rural Economic Development Center, the city of Asheville Community Development Block Grant program and other sources.) You Stand continues to attract at least five new participants a week, although it has never been advertised. Most hear about the program by word of mouth, and others are referred by collaborating agencies.

Yet Geter and Russell say they will not be satisfied until You Stand participants are able to play a more active role in the community — and in the program itself. EMSDC’s vision for You Stand participants goes beyond self-sufficiency. The long-term plan is to use You Stand to help solve several South Pack Square problems at once: Unemployed community residents will be taught construction skills, thereby gaining employment while building much-needed affordable housing and renovating the buildings that give South Pack Square its current “blighted” status.

In some ways, this vision is already being achieved. Plans are in the works for the job training, and the You Standers have found numerous ways to help one another, with limited assistance from EMSDC. For instance, program participatns often loan money to their peers who are in need, and they have held a series of car washes and barbecues to raise funds for one another’s emergencies. LaShawnta Whiteside, another EMSDC staff person, is a veteran of the program. And Julia McDowell learned her computer skills from Bruce Armstrong, a You Stand client who inspired her with his triumph over homelessness.

“There’s got to be a continuum of services and support,” says Armstrong. “Many of the homeless people, you’ll see them rise up to a point where you think they are getting a foothold, and then you’ll see them six months later and they are back in the hole again.”

Armstrong says he found himself on the streets after an act of honesty that had unexpected consequences. For years, he had earned about $17 an hour removing asbestos — a trade he learned from a friend. But one day he was promoted and, in preparation for his new role, he began to study the more technical aspects of the industry. “Well, when I started researching and reading, I realized that I wasn’t properly certified,” Armstrong reveals. “The only thing I had was the knowledge and skills; I was completely illegal.” He decided to call the state Environmental Protection Agency and turn himself in. He expected to be able to rectify the situation, but instead, he was forbidden to continue his work and was faced with legal action. Afterward, he could find only minimum-wage jobs that he describes as “not sufficient to both provide you food and a roof over your head.” He was soon homeless.

After a couple of difficult years, EMSDC and other agencies have helped him to afford an apartment that he shares with a friend. As part of his assistance, You Stand staff steered Armstrong to inexpensive clothing stores, helping him to build a new wardrobe piece by piece. They helped him secure a loan (since paid back in full) to buy a computer that will enable him to start a home business. You Stand also assisted him with funds for trips to Raleigh that made it possible for him to put his legal problems behind him. “You reach a point with the minor accomplishments,” Armstrong notes, “that brings you to a point where [you realize], ‘OK, I may not be there just yet, but boy, am I on my way. I have made such progress.’ And when you hit a snag, you can say [to a You Stand adviser], ‘OK, this is what I want to accomplish. And, I’m willing to do whatever; just point me in the right direction.’ And they’ve always been able to give me an answer as to where I can go.”

Armstrong says this willingness to problem-solve sets You Stand apart from other programs. “In too many cases I’ve seen — with job services, with support services and so forth — there’s a ‘box’ concept of what the disadvantaged need. And if you don’t fit exactly in that box, right down to the decimal point, [they say], ‘We can’t help you.’ You Stand gives the disadvantaged someone to go to who will find a way. If one resource doesn’t do it, they [You Stand and its collaborators] have the resources that will.”

These resources, and the knowledge that help is only a phone call away, make all the difference for You Stand participants. “So many times,” explains Armstrong, “when I was in a position where the doors were open or could be open, I still had this in the back of my head: I’m homeless. … It’s such a far stretch from walking down the street, knowing you’re clean-shaven, your clothes are clean, but … almost accepting it when people, tourists, citizens step off the sidewalk as you go by. You know there’s nothing wrong with you, but automatically you know you’re homeless, and you equate this as, ‘Yeah, I’m an untouchable.’ … So somehow, some way, I’m undeserving. And that’s kind of where I’m coming from. Words can’t express how grateful I am [to You Stand]. I mean, I’ve come a long way, but I know where I’m going. I know I’ve got a support network behind me, and now I know I can accomplish not just what I have [to do now], but what I’ve got in front of me. And it’s beyond the point of self-assurance. I’m excited about what the future holds.”


Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.