The “Love Chatham” project — created to develop homeless shelters in Chatham County — is not quite one year old. This week, we speak with Ben Suggs, one of its founders, about the …
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The “Love Chatham” project — created to develop homeless shelters in Chatham County — is not quite one year old. This week, we speak with Ben Suggs, one of its founders, about the organization’s progress and initiatives and the state of homelessness inside Chatham.
Suggs is the pastor of Freedom Family Church, a non-denominational congregation planted in Siler City in 2017 after he’d spent nine years as a youth pastor in Liberty. He also owns Southern Entertainment, a mobile DJ company that has been serving schools and weddings in central N.C. since 2006.
In addition, Suggs has spent time teaching at Chatham Charter School and Central Carolina Community College. He’s a member of multiple advisory boards around the Siler City community, where he lives with his wife Jenna and their four children.
Remind us how Love Chatham was formed, and who’s involved now …
Love Chatham (a shorthand for the Chatham County N.C. Homeless Shelters 501c3 organization) had its genesis from two areas:
• seeing the community needs coming from Freedom Family Church’s Clothing Closet and CORA-supplied Food Pantry that has been operating since October of 2020, and
• An inter-church Men’s Bible Study that began feeling a desire to provide a homeless solution in Chatham County where there isn’t one.
Love Chatham began as an alliance of local pastors and churches but has also been expanding its volunteer base to others in the community with no tie to a faith organization. Leadership and members from Freedom Family Church, Siler City First Wesleyan, Pittsboro Church of the Nazarene, River of Life Church of God of Prophecy, and Plainfield Friends make up the majority of our support/volunteer base currently. We have talked to others from Moon’s Chapel Baptist, First Methodist, Fellowship Baptist, Tyson’s Creek Baptist, and more who are currently considering how to get involved specifically. We hope to continue to strengthen that alliance of churches that are putting their efforts together to be even more effective as one as we would be on our own.
Your stated goal is to alleviate homelessness and address other needs. You just formed in January … what’s the state of the organization now?
Our biggest goal that we are in the midst of is finding a temporary solution to homelessness for this winter. The two routes we are considering are:
• Finding a facility somewhere in the county to rent for the winter and temporarily housing those with emergency situations; and
• Utilizing existing churches or other buildings in a rotation — a model utilized by Family Promise in Lee County — and bringing supplies and other needed items to each location. We have three churches currently willing to open their doors for a week at a time in that rotation with a few more considering it among their members and leadership.
We recently purchased a mobile bathroom/shower that can be used in that rotation if some of the buildings don’t have appropriate facilities. We are also in the process of adding that bathroom to a trailer and adding a small room for either storage or housing a few people if needed.
In the interim, we have been helping those who reach out by sponsoring short stays in hotels, connecting them with other housing programs, and supplying them with food and clothing from Freedom Family’s pantry.
So far through three quarters of 2021 we have helped provide 740 people stays in 319 hotel rooms and provide 944 people in 299 families with either food, clothing, or housing assistance. We expect those numbers to swell during the winter months.
We have also been raising awareness by attending events like the Flatwoods Festival and Goldston Old Fashion Day (before it was canceled) with a booth and starting conversations there.
What kind of interest in your endeavors and support are you getting?
So far, we have seen a lot of excitement and a consensus that Chatham County needs a solution for homelessness. We have been encouraged by and banded together with local organizations like United Way of Chatham County, Salvation Army, Central Piedmont Community Action (CPCA), and more recently we’ve begun partnering with The Furniture Project in the North Chatham/Galloway Ridge to provide furniture for those leaving homelessness for a stable location. We find we are at our most effective when these organizations team up to cover the needs of each other’s clients.
Our biggest support has been in the form of the Issue-Based Grant we were awarded earlier this year from the United Way of Chatham County. They not only gave us the financial resources to begin developing our programs, but they have offered connections and other organizational resources and have even come out to help us with food distribution.
We also have a small group of churches and individuals that give financially each month.
Give us an assessment of that homelessness and the other needs — what’s the story with homelessness and housing insecurity in Chatham? Who’s impacted? Where?
I don’t pretend to have the complete story, but we’ve found that it’s difficult to get an accurate count of the homeless population due to their transient lifestyle and no central place for them to go in the county. We can get a general idea from keeping an eye on certain pockets of woods along U.S. Hwy. 64 and the local hotels to see which among their clients are asking for assistance from our group of organizations.
In my own conversations I have noticed there is a general ignorance and stigma among even generous people in our area about the reason for homelessness. Far too often they would rather write them off as just drug abusers who refuse to work. While that can certainly be the case, we have gathered from our own investigating that the biggest issue is the lack of affordable housing. There is a wide mix of other causes — not only drugs but mental and physical health issues and domestic abuse — that are exacerbated by the fact that most houses or apartments are full or unavailable. We regularly provide food to those who are working full-time but can’t find a more permanent place than a hotel to stay in.
What’s your ultimate vision, and what will it take to get there?
We realize the temporary sheltering needs are the first step, but we want Love Chatham to be much more than a Band-Aid on an infected wound. We want to be a part of holistic recovery and success by helping treat the cause and not just the effects of their homelessness.
As we grow our volunteer base, we want to provide case workers that will take on these clients and guide them through or connect them to other areas like addiction recovery, job training, financial planning, and spiritual growth. And again, we’re not limited to churches being involved but another goal is to unite the many churches together in our common call to the down and out. A cooperation of churches in this area of ministry will allow even smaller amounts of money and fewer volunteers to have a bigger impact. We don’t have to agree about specific theology as long as we agree that Christ commanded His Church to be generous in this way. (See Matthew 25:35-40.)
We want to establish a more permanent emergency shelter that can be the first step out of homelessness and the home base for us to get them involved in our programs. We also are currently working on a plan for transitional housing that would allow them access to affordable mid-term places to stay (say 3-6 months) while they recover and prepare for a more permanent housing.
Those goals will take lots of development, but we are currently in the process of hiring a full-time program director, thanks to funds from both the United Way and Freedom Family Church, who will be tasked with finalizing our temporary shelter plan and building our base of donors and volunteers. We have taken in applications will send out a press release once that decision is made.
How can people get involved?
Financially: Commit to a one time or recurring gift at ChathamHomeless.org. It’s tax-deductible and will help us in a big way with supplies and short-term stays along with building up a source for our long-term plans.
Volunteer: While at the website you can send us a message if you’re interested in helping with things like our food distributions, promoting to the community, hauling food and other materials to people in need. We also need people willing to answer our help line and connect those people with the right resources.
Attend one of our monthly meetings — which are on the second Monday of the month at a rotation of locations around the county. Our event calendar is also found at ChathamHomeless.org.