Series on homelessness in WNC aims to raise awareness

Jun 30, 2014

Asheville Citizen Times reporter Casey Blake has done her fair share of reporting, especially on educational issues is Western North Carolina.

But it’s fair to say she’s never written anything like “No Place to Call Home.”

In radio, we measure stories in minutes; in magazines, it’s by the word; but in newspapers, it’s inches, and Blake says her normal sort of in depth story is about 50 inches.

“No Place To Call Home”, Blake says, is at least 500 inches.

It’s a collaboration with photographer Erin Brethauer, who spent countless hours with two families facing homelessness in Western North Carolina, and John Boyle, whose reporting helped put some of the specific stories in a larger, policy-based context.

The project took ten months. It’s the longest Brethauer or Blake have ever spent on a story before.

The idea came from a New York Times article that ran in 2009-- reporters in New York were so struck by the number of homeless children in the Buncombe County school district that they ran a story about it.

At the height of the recession in 2009, there were 300 homeless students in Buncombe County schools.

That number was considered abnormally high, and the problem got a lot of attention.

Blake says she remembers the Times story. So as she was researching something totally different, Blake asked a schools employee how that number looked nearly five years later.

We’ve all heard that the economy is on the upswing as the number of jobs increases and unemployment is on the decline.

Blake was stunned when she heard that the number of homeless students in Buncombe County almost doubled since 2009.

Now, there are 556 kids in Buncombe County who are considered homeless.

For context, I asked Blake how many kids overall are in the county school district. It’s about 25,000.

That’s about two percent, which is seemingly small.

But Blake says that’s not the right question to ask.

“Luke Heller at Buncombe County Schools said one of the things he hears over and over again is, ‘550 kids in 25,000, that’s a drop in the bucket,’ Blake says.

“I think Luke asked the ultimate question, which is that everyone should ask themselves how many they’re comfortable with. What is your number that you feel good about? That has been so stuck in my brain… I would encourage folks to name their number, and to say ok am I ok with one?”

Part of what makes this issue so difficult to cover is that there are so many layers to the problem of homelessness.

School districts use a metric called the McKinney-Vento definition-- that measurement includes any child who doesn’t have a permanent residence, which can include sleeping on floors or couches of relatives,  or in hotels and motels.

But Federal Housing Authority definitions are much more stringent, saying homelessness is essentially living the street, camping in an abandoned building or staying in a shelter.

Blake and Brethauer decided to address the complexity of the issue by focusing on two families in different circumstances: one who was living with family friends in a double wide trailer and the other in a homeless shelter.

"No place to call home" is the long-form reporting project from Casey Blake, John Boyle, and Erin Brethauer.
Credit Erin Brethauer / Asheville Citizen Times

They spent hours with each family, getting to know their lives now, but also coming to understand the circumstances that brought each family to the position they’re in now.

When it comes to a story like this, access is always an issue.

It can often be difficult to convince impoverished families and educators and agencies to speak candidly.

But Blake and Brethauer said they were astounded by how receptive everyone was to sharing their sides of the story.

“Every principal and guidance counselor and shelter staffer who we’ve come into contact with seemed really on board, and I think that speaks to the severity and crisis level that they’re feeling,” Blake said.

“Crisis” is a word you hear often in relation to the issue of homelessness in Western North Carolina.

That’s why Blake and Brethauer are moderating a forum tonight about child and family homelessness.

Shane Hopkins, who lost his home when he was laid off, will talk about the lengths he went to to keep his family together after they lost their house.

Also on the panel are Michael Woods, who leads Western North Carolina Rescue Ministry; Luke Heller, the Buncombe County Schools homeless liaison, and Heather Dillashaw with the Asheville’s Homeless Initiative.

The goal is for these organizations to collaborate, communicate and strategize, but also to start a community wide dialogue about endemic homelessness

“In some ways, Luke and Heather and Michael are working on very different parts of the same problem and have such different paths that they can take and play different roles in solving this,” Blake said. “So I think it’ll be really interesting to ask some of those questions and see how differently they answer them, and how different their resources are.”

Blake and Brethauer both want to encourage community members to come and ask any questions they may have. Most of us are ignorant about most aspects of homelessness, they say, but no question is too ignorant. It’s all part of having a respectful dialogue.

Both Blake and Brethauer are obviously very strongly connected to the story they’ve spent nearly a year working on.

“I just want to make sure that we thank the families for stepping forward,” Brethauer said.

“We’re so grateful that they’re willing to share with us and our community.”

The forum takes place Monday night at 7 at the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center.