SILER CITY — Historically high inflation has left Chatham County’s poor — and not-so-poor — in need, seeking assistance from organizations such as Love Chatham, a nonprofit working to address homelessness that’s based at Freedom Family Church in Siler City.
Dakota Philbrick, Love Chatham’s executive director, sees the impact of inflation firsthand as his organization’s clientele continues to increase.
“The last time we checked, we had increased our numbers by about 60% year over year,” Philbrick said. “The demand is there … a lot more people are needing help.”
Siler City, in particular — which on average offers lower wages than other parts of the county — has been the source of most of Love Chatham’s increases.
“The average income in Siler City is in the $29,000 range, versus the county’s, which is $80,000 plus,” Philbrick said. “There are resources that are needed in this area, and I think the additional economic pressures are definitely straining families and straining the community.”
Each of Love Chatham’s ministries — a hotel ministry, a food pantry, a clothing closet and more — contributes to helping an overall 61% increase in people seeking Love Chatham’s assistance for food or clothing, according to Philbrick, and he said he doesn’t see that number going down any time soon.
Other organizations have seen similar increases in the percentage of people seeking financial or material assistance. CORA (Chatham Outreach Alliance, based in Pittsboro) has served almost 11,300 people in 2022 alone and has over 1,100 children enrolled in its SNACK program.
“Our numbers are growing and our organization is growing,” Philbrick said. “We’re going after more grants and such, which is going to help us continue to be able to grow ministries.”
As the need for Love Chatham’s resources has increased, so has the frequency of having to tell clients “no” to some requests.
Mary Lacey Eubanks, Love Chatham’s summer intern, is a Chatham County native who’s working in Siler City in hopes of giving back to the community that raised her.
“I grew up in this area, so it was a really exciting opportunity for me to work in a way that will make a difference for my community,” she said.
Eubanks works with Philbrick to provide clients with a chance to be successful, whether that means providing individuals with a hotel room for a night or handing a family a box with food items for that week’s meals.
But not all requests sent to Love Chatham end with a “happily ever after.” Eubanks recalled a scenario where she was in contact with a woman who had been served eviction papers and tested positive for COVID-19.
“I remember trying to call her management company and the landlord, and I just couldn’t get in touch with them, so it’s hard to have to go back and tell her there’s not much we can do,” Eubanks said. “It’s hard not to be really empathetic when you’re talking to someone directly about what they’re struggling through. I really wanted to be able to help her.”
Love Chatham was able to pay the woman’s water bill so she could at least be comfortable, but because the costs of goods have increased, operations costs for Love Chatham have increased, too.
“We’re not undervalued, just under-resourced,” Philbrick said. “We’re working very closely with these other partners to bridge the gap to be more efficient, to be more effective, and to communicate and streamline processes behind the scenes.”
Love Chatham has partnered with agencies such as the Salvation Army, CORA, the United Way, Chatham County Department of Social Services, and more to assist community members in need. Eubanks said she sits in on calls with these partners with Philbrick, and in a recent meeting, partners were already saying their resources were stretched thin.
“Even with the spread of nonprofits all working towards the same cause, we were already running out of resources because it seems like the demand is very high,” Eubanks said. “I don’t know if that was because of the higher prices in June or if that’s just how things usually go, but they were expressing they were having to put people on the waitlist and running out of funds for this month until July.”
The organization does have fundraisers, including a Chicken Plate Fundraiser set to take place on Saturday, July 30, but fundraisers aren’t always enough.
Something Philbrick thinks could help with the increased demand is a full-time housing shelter in Chatham County. As of now, there is not a facility dedicated to sheltering those experiencing homelessness in Chatham, nor are there any plans for one to be developed.
“I grew up in this area, and it concerns me that we don’t have something in place to help our struggling brothers and sisters, our neighbors,” Philbrick said. “We’d be able to help a lot more people, and we’d be able to help the community a lot more effectively if we had a permanent shelter.”
Philbrick would love for people across the county to rush to help those experiencing homelessness by supporting the development of a homeless shelter. He’s wary, though, of attitudes and stereotypes about people without housing.
“We do our best to talk about and debunk some of those myths and to really share with our community these are people, they deserve a shot,” Philbrick said.
One of the more harmful phrases Philbrick hears on a day-to-day basis is “Why can’t these people get a job?”
The answer’s not always easy.
“There could be some mental or physical challenges or disabilities,” he said. “We could see somebody that just needs help get some documentation. … It’s hard to get hired if they don’t have a permanent address … we see folks that experience transportation challenges … so those are some challenges that are unique to this area.”
To tackle the negative stereotypes surrounding the impoverished, Philbrick said he turns to where Love Chatham’s mission comes from: the Bible.
“We’re just joining God where he’s already working, that’s our goal,” Philbrick said. “You have to educate people — you have to help folks see someone that’s experiencing homelessness … help them see that individual as a person, not just this label of homelessness, and all the things that it conjures up sometimes.”
Reporter Taylor Heeden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @HeedenTaylor.
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