New organization hopes to address homeless crisis with permanent shelter

Posted 4/7/21

A burgeoning group of local philanthropists and religious leaders are working to establish accessible long-term resources for the county’s homeless population, but they say they need more community …

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New organization hopes to address homeless crisis with permanent shelter

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A burgeoning group of local philanthropists and religious leaders are working to establish accessible long-term resources for the county’s homeless population, but they say they need more community support.

Chatham County NC Homeless Shelters is a nonprofit founded in January in response to the county’s intensifying homelessness crisis. The state has officially recognized the group, but the IRS has not yet approved its application to fall under 501(c)(3) status.

“There is a growing issue in our county,” the organization’s website, chathamhomeless.org, says as part of its mission. “It’s one that was present before, but has been exacerbated by COVID-19. It’s a rising tide of homelessness unlike this area has seen in recent memory.”

“We kind of formed last fall just by delivering meals to people staying in hotels,” said Mack Neeves, the group’s secretary and a founding member. “But we realized just how bad the situation was as far as these people struggling to get a place to stay.”

Neeves spent most of his career in South Carolina as a postmaster. After retiring, he started residential and commercial real estate businesses before eventually settling in Chatham, where his wife had grown up. He’s never worked in a community relief organization before, he said, but upon recognizing the extent of Chatham’s homeless crisis, he felt compelled to act.

The situation was grave. As Neeves made inquiries among local charities, he learned that many were running out of funds. The pandemic had dragged on longer than anyone expected, but few would suffer more than Chatham’s homeless families.

“I mean, some of these people, they put them up in hotels, and they’ve been in hotels for months,” Neeves said. “Some have been in there for five months, but it won’t be affordable much longer.”

There are at least 10 homeless families right now — about 22 individuals — staying in Siler City’s AmeriVu Inn and Motor Lodge, Neeves says. Their stays are funded by organizations such as the Salvation Army and Central Piedmont Community Action. But Neeves knows of many unofficially identified homeless families in Chatham with appalling living conditions.

“I was talking with people at the Emergency Housing Fund, and they’re not even sure exactly how many are out there,” he said, “but we know that there are some out there living in the woods.”

So far, Chatham County NC Homeless Shelters has not secured space to house disadvantaged Chathamites — but that’s its ultimate goal.

“We’re still just trying to get this together,” Neeves said, “So for now we’ve got a clothes closet where we hand out clothes to people every first and third Saturday, and we’ve got two rooms of food pantry.”

The organization is operating out of Freedom Family Church on North Holly Avenue in Siler City. Neeves’ stepson, Ben Suggs, is the pastor there and another founding member of the homeless shelter.

“We’re also delivering meals to the folks in the hotels every week,” Neeves said. “We realized it was hard for everybody to prepare hot meals, so we hooked up with CORA and we fix up a box and take it to each (family) at the hotels that we know of every week.”

Church donations and partnerships with other charitable organizations have permitted the group to sustain its modest operation, but to achieve more ambitious goals, the shelter will need widespread community support.

“We really want to get as many churches involved as we can,” Neeves said. “And there’s about 200 churches, we were told by the people over Chatham County.”

The biggest problem in addressing Chatham’s homeless crisis, as Neeves and his partners see it, is the absence of a central and easily identifiable resource. Many counties and cities have dedicated homeless shelters, but Chatham does not. Food delivery and hotel stays help with immediate need, but what about families who need more intensive long-term assistance?

“To stay in those hotels, it’s like $55 to $60 a night, and that gets pretty expensive after a while for these organizations and they’re running out of funds,” Neeves said. “A well-run shelter can cut way down on those costs, though, and be a place where people know they can go. So, right now we’re just trying to find land, or find a building we could renovate.”

Neeves couldn’t identify a specific timeline by which the organization hopes to establish its Chatham homeless shelter, but everything must be accomplished “ASAP.”

“I mean, people need it yesterday, you know, so our timeline is as quick as we can try to get something put together,” he said. “We’re talking with as many local people as we can trying to get help.”

Eventually, when a primary shelter is operational, Neeves says the group will expand to include transitional housing — probably several tiny houses where families can stay for longer periods of time as they work toward financial independence.

“Then people can move from, say, a hotel room to a small house and then to their own place,” he said. “So, that’s kind of our long-range goal.”

Before any big plans can reach fruition, though, Chatham County NC Homeless Shelters needs more residents to familiarize themselves with the organization and its plans, Neeves said. Neither Chatham’s homeless population, nor potential backers are that familiar with the group, its resources or its future plans.

“We need people to find out that, hey, you can come right here and get food, or you can get clothes,” Neeves said. “But also, the more people we can find, they can find out about what we’re trying to do, and maybe help us to really get this thing off the ground — because there’s definitely a need there and we want to offer a solution.”

To learn more about Chatham County NC Homeless Shelters and to get involved, visit chathamhomeless.org, email help@chathamhomeless.org or call 919-799-7173.

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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