Albemarle Volunteers: Smith, Northeast Coalition help homeless find shelter

By Jon Hawley

The Daily Advance

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Eight years ago, a woman’s brother was homeless in Elizabeth City and there was no help for him.

Ever since, Gus Smith and the Northeast Coalition to End Homelessness have been working to fix that. The all-volunteer group today is a hub that helps the homeless find what they need to rebound from what’s often the worst days of their lives — food, rental assistance, job training, whatever it takes.

Smith said the coalition has easily helped some 500 people since 2007. However, its origins lay in one woman’s story.

“In 2007, one of our county commissioners, Cecil Perry … got a letter one day from a lady from out of town that said her brother had been here in a homeless situation in Elizabeth City and there was nothing for him,” Smith recounted. Perry turned to the Albemarle Area United Way to ask what it could do; Smith was a United Way board member then. With the group’s then-director, Susan Hoskins, he decided something had to be done.

“We recognized immediately this goes beyond the United Way, it goes to all the agencies in our area who serve those in need,” he said. The homeless coalition was born soon after.

Though it has only a handful of members — six today, Smith said — that until recently had to work out of their homes, the coalition still made a big difference.

The coalition found that, contrary to the woman’s letter, Elizabeth City has many resources that can help the homeless, Smith explained. There’s the Department of Social Services, the Albemarle Hopeline Emergency Shelter, the Food Bank of the Albemarle and dozens of churches that can help those in need. But what the homeless were missing, and what the coalition has grown into, is a starting point, a guidepost, to find those services.

Today the coalition has a network of 30 agency partners, Smith said, to address the factors that leave people homeless or precariously housed. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to homelessness, he explained.

“Every case that comes through the door is different, obviously,” Smith said. “We’ve had individuals as well as entire families come in here. When the economy got into trouble (in 2007), some people lost their jobs which meant they couldn’t meet their rental requirements, etc. Some (faced homelessness) even due to catastrophic illness, they may not have had insurance to cover such things.”

He also said he’s seen homeless people from all walks of life, from those struggling with minimum wage work to college-educated professionals. A very small few are even resigned to remain homeless, migrating through the area in search of warmer climes.

The homeless coalition isn’t just a waypoint, however. It’s secured and continues seeking grants to help the homeless in ways big and small.

“We’ve helped people with their rent, their deposits, their late electric bills, things of that nature, and we’ve put people up in motels for (up to a week),” Smith said. That funding reflects a mix of local, state and federal resources. Smith said the largest grant the coalition ever received was a $500,000 federal grant to help pay rent and utility bills for families and veterans in need.

Grants only go so far, and Smith said local churches, non-profits and individual donations — sometimes from coalition members themselves — help fill in the rest.

Though he’s 78 years old now, Smith has no intent of slowing down the coalition’s work. To the contrary, he’s excited the coalition finally has a home at the Hugh Cale building. Now they have one place, easily accessed, for the homeless to go to find help. With their own space, Smith explained, the coalition will also start providing services to the recently started Visions of Hope women and children’s shelter at 709 Herrington Road. That includes screening shelter applicants, teaching job skills, clothing and transportation needs and other services. It will also help screen applicants for a “Room at the Inn” program where local churches will arrange temporary shelter for homeless families during winter months.

As Smith continues, and even expands, his service to others, his motivation remains simple.

“It’s people,” he said. “I have always been involved in and love serving people and helping people with their problems.”

For more information about the Northeast Coalition to End Homelessnes, call Smith at 335-1596.

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