By Shelby Harris, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
“As a mother, the thought of not having enough diapers is painful — emotionally and mentally, and it’s something we wish no parent or caregiver had to worry about,” Alicia Heacock wrote in an email, moments after being cut off by a Zoom meeting time limit.
Before the abrupt ending, Heacock fought back tears while trying to explain how she would feel if she couldn’t provide for her 3-month-old, Immy — who was actively bouncing at the bottom of the Zoom screen with a chubby hand in her mouth.
Heacock and Meagan Lyon Leimena spend every day immersed in the effort to make diapers accessible for all families through their work as co-directors of Babies Need Bottoms, one of the 19 local nonprofits that received funding through Buncombe County’s American Rescue Plan Act funding.
The need for diapers
Babies Need Bottoms, Western North Carolina’s only diaper bank, provides diapers and other sanitary items to organizations and facilities that work with children.
While child care centers that receive funding through government-funded programs such as HeadStart or NC-PreK are provided baby sanitary products, securing diapers is the job of caregivers alone when babies are buckled into car seats at the end of the day.
“You can’t use WIC; you can’t use SNAP,” Lyon Leimena said. “There’s nothing that fills that gap.”
The only government assistance for diapers outside of a school setting is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which provides low-income families with financial assistance for bills, clothing and other basic needs.
But with the average cost of diapers at $80 monthly, according to the National Diaper Bank Network, and the maximum TANF benefit for a family of three at $272, it’s likely there’s not a large diaper budget for families receiving the assistance to help with a range of needs.
“There’s no public social safety net, so communities, at a grassroots level, established diaper banks,” Lyon Leimena said.
In Babies Need Bottoms’ first year in WNC in 2018, the organization gave more than 34,000 diapers to 15 distribution centers throughout the region. The next year, that number grew to nearly 38,000. That’s more than 3,500 children served, according to the organization.
The need for diapers soared over the next two years as the COVID-19 pandemic distorted nearly all ways of life. In 2020, the nonprofit distributed more than 187,000 diapers — a 393% increase from the previous year — to 50 centers. In 2021, Babies Need Bottoms provided nearly 307,000 diapers for more than 15,000 children in seven WNC counties.
“When the pandemic happened, … everybody saw diaper need grow astronomically,” Heacock said.
“All of the sudden, people are having to find services for the first time. They’re not able to work. They can’t afford their other basic needs.”
With many parts of life returning to normal as the pandemic enters its third year, Heacock and Lyon Leimena don’t anticipate diaper distribution reaching the highs of 2020 or 2021. They still, however, have set a goal of giving out more than 86,000 diapers to child care centers over the next two years with this funding alone.
That goal is being ushered into fruition with the help of Buncombe County government, which awarded $50,000 of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to the nonprofit last fall.
Federal COVID recovery funds for nonprofits
ARPA funds, distributed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to counties based on population, can be used by nonprofits to help communities recover from the pandemic’s damages through public health initiatives, serving disproportionately affected communities or assisting small businesses.
When the first portion of ARPA money was disbursed to local governments beginning in May 2021, governments had the option to open applications from nonprofits for the funding. Buncombe County, along with other WNC entities such as Transylvania County and the city of Hendersonville, decided to do just that.
Beginning in August, Buncombe County, which received the region’s largest ARPA allotment, awarded nonprofits more than $13.9 million of its roughly $25 million recovery funds received through the first ARPA distribution.
“It’s roughly a 60/40 split, so 61% of the funding has been awarded to community-led projects, and 39% of the funding has been awarded to county-led projects,” said Rachael Nygaard, Buncombe County’s director of strategic partnerships.
“[The nonprofit] organizations are working on projects from mental health to affordable housing, small-business assistance, violence interventions, early learning,” Nygaard said. “It’s a real range of different types of projects.”
COVID recovery fund for WNC’s homeless population
Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina received the largest allocation of Buncombe’s ARPA funds to nonprofits — $3 million — for a project to transform a former Days Inn in Asheville into an 85-bed permanent housing facility for the county’s unhoused population.
The project, expected to cost $15 million, also received $2 million in ARPA funding from the city of Asheville, said Eleanor Ashton, Homeward Bound’s resource development director. Private donors and grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also provided funding for the project.
“We call it ‘Home is Key,’ because home is key to health, safety, healing and hope,” Ashton said.
“(The project) will reduce our chronic (homeless) population by nearly 40%. There’s 127 hotel rooms that will be converted into 85 efficiency apartments for 85 of our community’s most chronically homeless. These are folks who’ve been living on the streets for decades.”
According to a count conducted by the city of Asheville in January 2021, Buncombe County has a homeless population of 527 people — only 20 fewer than in 2020 and overall consistent with previous years.
Home is Key will not only offer permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness but will also provide on-site case management, security and services to support independence, stabilization and an improved quality of life, Homeward Bound’s application for ARPA funds stated.
“We believe you get people into housing first, and then you wrap them in supportive services,” Ashton said.
“Once they’re living in safe and secure housing, then they’re much more likely to be receptive to these … supportive services.”
Similar to Babies Need Bottoms, Homeward Bound saw a drastic increase in need for its services in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ashton said. With places like grocery stores and libraries closed to the public, the unhoused community had limited access to any type of shelter.
Further, when people are chronically homeless — without a home for at least a year — Ashton said they’re more likely to develop other health problems or ignore existing medical concerns, which makes them more susceptible to falling ill from a virus like COVID.
So, when the option to use COVID recovery funds to help this population arose, Homeward Bound quickly applied, initially asking for more than $5 million.
“This hotel really is kind of a gift from COVID — one of the very few gifts,” Ashton said.
“It was a struggling business, and they decided to sell. And we thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a whole lot easier than building from the ground.’”
Renovations are currently underway at the Days Inn on Tunnel Road, Ashton said. Homeward Bound hopes to welcome tenants by the start of 2023.
Here’s a list of other Buncombe County nonprofits that have been awarded American Rescue Plan Act funding:
- Asheville Area Arts Council received $50,000
- Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity received $1.6 million
- Asheville Museum of Science received $130,000
- Babies Need Bottoms received $50,000
- Buncombe County Service Foundation & Mountain BizWorks received $500,000
- Center for Agricultural and Food Entrepreneurship received $200,000
- Eagle Market Streets Development Corp., CDC received $375,000
- Green Built Alliance received $250,000
- Haywood Street Community Development received $749,000
- Homeward Bound of WNC received $3 million
- Mountain BizWork received $1.25 million
- Mountain Child Advocacy Center received $262,500
- Mountain Housing Opportunities received $2.5 million
- RHA Health Services received $1.3 million
- The Arc of Buncombe County received $50,000
- The Mediation Center received $1 million
- Verner Center for Early Learning receives $419,309
- W4H Asheville Working Wheels received $92,400
- We Give a Share received $160,000