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The right to a roof

By Michael Papich Access to housing is a barrier to ending poverty and finding stability in any part of the world. But in Alamance County, affordable housing remains one of the more elusive services for people in need.

The median gross rent in 2012 for housing in Graham was $677. In Burlington, it was $727. In Mebane, it was $780. For someone working minimum wage for eight hours a day during the work week, that makes rent more than half their monthly earnings.

According to Terry Allebaugh from the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness, that is well above the standard for affordable housing.

“The HUD (Housing and Urban Development) standard is that people should not pay more than 30 percent of their income for the cost of their housing and utilities,” Allebaugh said. “What we find, inevitably, in communities across the state is people often pay 40 percent, 50 percent and even as much as 60 percent.”

Kim Crawford, executive director of Allied Churches of Alamance County, said the lack of affordable housing is countywide.

“You’ve got to be working 40 hours plus in order to afford almost anything in Alamance,” Crawford said. “There’s enough housing, but not enough affordable housing.”

Crawford said she and others at Allied Churches try to help get residents out of their shelters quickly because “this is housing; this isn’t a home.”

And when so much of a person’s income is being diverted to housing, Allebaugh said other budget items are neglected.

“When you’re paying 50 percent or more just for your place to live, then something else is suffering,” he said. “You’re not paying for health care, you’re not paying for food or clothing or other essentials.”

A lack of affordable housing creates a more precarious position for individuals and families to live in, making the possibilities of falling into homelessness more likely. North Carolina has 11,491 people HUD designates as homeless; 2,617 are unsheltered.

North Carolina has an Interagency Council for Coordinating Homeless Programs to work on the problem, combining departments like the Department of Commerce, Health and Human Services, Labor and Criminal Justice.

“But that council has not been meeting for a while,” Allebaugh said. “It’s been a couple years, as a matter of fact, so it’s hard for me to say that that’s a current resource.”

The lack of council meetings is not the only issue North Carolina government action is facing, according to Allebaugh.

“There are a lot of other states that provide more direct funding for homelessness programs than North Carolina,” he said. “Here, the things that are there are good, but they’re really not enough an we’d like to see that increase, but it hasn’t bee a time of increasing state funds for homelessness.”

Alamance County cities have housing authorities and other programs to get people in poverty into affordable or transitional housing. For example, the United Way gets funding from HUD to set up shelters and permanent housing.

“We will identify where the open housing locations are,” said Heidi Norwick, president of Alamance County’s United Way. “Right now that’s done piecemeal and we have to meet every month and we have to call each other and find out whose got available housing. With this coordinated intake, it will be in one place and we’ll have a prioritized list of people on that list and know where the housing is to hopefully better access that folks.”

The county United Way also has transitional housing specifically for people with mental illness or substance abuse problems. Allebaugh said the NC Coalition to End Homelessness works to help people get jobs and take in steady income, but finding housing remains an issue.

“They look around and there’s not housing they can afford to get into. The lack of decent and affordable housing means what becomes affordable is often slums and run-down houses, which are not very conducive to stability and rebuilding your life,” he said.

And it’s this instability that Norwick said is one of the main obstacle to success in the county.

“It’s a whole circle if you’re born into poverty. If you’re born into a family that can support you, you’re going to do well in school, you’re going to have a good job, you’re going to have a good retirement and be able to take care of yourself through the end of your life,” she said. “And that circle just continues and until we can break that cycle of poverty, we’re going to have folks that don’t make that complete circle without success.”

Alamance County’s Salvation Army also has an annual grant to pay for rent and mortgage to ensure that locals don’t end up without housing in the first place.

“It’s a lot cheaper for us as a community to keep people housed than for them to get into a homeless situation and for them to have to get back into a housing situation,” said Jimmy Taylor, captain of the Salvation Army of Alamance County. “It’s easier to do that, which is wonderful. The problem is, we’re the only organization in the county that does that.”

A study conducted by Creative Housing Solutions in May 2014 found the public expenses related to keeping one person homeless is almost three times more than the cost to provide housing and services like healthcare and job training for that same person.

Norwick said as long as United Way and other Alamance County programs have a lack of resources, their ability to provide housing and other services will be limited that much more.

“A lot of times too, we’re putting Band-Aids on problems. Surely, we have to house people, we have to feed them, we have to take care of the elderly, we have to educate our children, but we also have to look back down the road and see where some of the problems are started and start making some changes so that we can change this cycle of poverty,” she said.