By Beth Lawrence, The Sylva Herald

While most of the world hunkers down to curb the spread of coronavirus, aid agencies like HERE in Jackson County continue to provide crucial services.

Since its work began last year, HERE has placed 69 people in permanent housing. That number includes 16 families and 17 individuals.

The organization currently has dozens of people in emergency shelter.

“The majority of our shelter clients are single adults, so total individuals including those in eight families is 33,” said Bob Cochran director of HERE.

HERE contracts with local hotels to get people into emergency accommodations.

The process of getting people into permanent housing can take as little as weeks or much longer.

“Many of our clients have struggled with homelessness for years and even as children when their parents could not provide a safe, stable home for them,” Cochran said. “We use a housing first model. Evidence shows that mental health treatment, vocational training, child welfare intervention and other social investments have a much greater return when individuals have safe, secure and permanent housing from which to operate.”

HERE works with a range of people. Some clients are people with chronic health conditions who were living on Social Security Disability but lost their home. A person without a permanent address is disqualified from receiving benefits. Helping that person could be as simple as finding an apartment and getting their disability benefit reestablished.

Others need more help.

“There’s a big difference between a family with income needing assistance getting into permanent housing versus somebody with no income, ID, birth certificate or Social Security card,” Cochran said.

For individuals in the latter group, the process can take several months. Many of HERE’s clients are able to move forward and maintain housing and a stable environment for themselves or their families. Others cannot and find themselves homeless again.

The organization is working on strategies to improve those outcomes. Cochran believes all the effort is worth it in the long run.

“Children growing up in stable households are more likely to do better in school and become productive members of society as adults,” he said.

To be eligible for subsidies like Section 8 housing, a person must have credentials like ID and a birth certificate.

Cochran is currently assisting a client who was born in another country but is a naturalized citizen. He cannot obtain a copy of the client’s birth certificate from the birth country or locate adoption paperwork.

“So many people are here from other states,” he said. “This year I’ve sent off to Illinois, Georgia and Florida for birth certificates.”

Landlords require prospective tenants to have income. Some need guidance finding work. There are subsidies available to help with rent, but those stipends are based on income. The subsidies are designed to ensure that the person does not pay more than 30 percent of income on rent and utilities.

The cost to help clients varies. On average HERE pays for about six weeks of emergency shelter. The agency also helps clients cover the cost of moving into long-term housing.

“If we estimate one person or one family needing cold weather shelter for six weeks before entering permanent housing, that cost would be $2,730,” Cochran said. “First month’s rent and deposits for a two bedroom house or apartment would be approximately $1,586.

That includes $693 for rent, $693 for a deposit and $200 for utility deposits, if needed, he said.

The organization partners with The Community Table to feed shelter clients, but pays for meals on Wednesday when the pantry is closed. They are also exploring ways to provide meals on the weekend for shelter clients without income.

Clients can receive transportation to and from appointments and help purchasing prescriptions.

Sometimes caseworkers run into problems due to the availability of housing, high level of competition for available units, and finding landlords willing to rent to the recently homeless or someone with poor credit.

“Usually it’s hard for our clients to find apartments,” Cochran said. “You or I would just hop in our cars and go look at it. A lot of times they’re trying to do everything over the phone, and they don’t make a good first impression. The landlord knows its limited means and senses there are challenges from the very beginning. They’ve got so many barriers, and when they’re competing against other prospective tenants, they don’t always come across well. They’re not always the strongest applicant.”