Asheville – It is now common to see people roll out from under the bushes in the morning. The welfare rolls are expanding pretty much doubling. The national debt just passed the $27 trillion milestones, and the IRS is not exactly in hot pursuit of delinquent payments these days. So, it wasn’t necessary to hear the depressing outlook sketched at the last meeting of the Buncombe County Commissioners to feel a need to start innovating creative solutions to poverty, debt, displacement, and other COVID repercussions before something really terrible happens.
Local government is doing a lot, rightly, for urban and youthful populations, but what about the panhandlers on just about every highway interchange? They’re not the usual Jack Kerouac wannabes; they’re old people, some toothless. What about the guy the commissioners recently mentioned who was living with a dirt floor, or the emaciated man fishing for change to buy a loaf of bread and bananas? It was the pensioner trying to sell his scant worldly possessions to folks driving down the road that was the final straw.
Yours truly placed a call to Commissioner Joe Belcher, in whose district this individual resides, and asked what was being done for the old people who don’t text, don’t have internet, and somehow fly under the equity lens. Belcher, who was driving and communicated handsfree, almost immediately said, “I’m looking at two of them, now.”
Following a rehash of the supply and demand curve and an expressed interest in getting a policy, since the county has none, Belcher said the county had been having good conversations about the homeless, with particularly cogent insights for helping people with addiction, but COVID sidelined all that. He added that now that it’s election season, with five of the seven commissioners running, no matter how much constituents are hurting, nobody is going to want to do any “heavy-lifting.”
Then, Belcher put things in perspective. “People want government to step in, and it can’t do everything.” He said it can be a safety net, or it can partner with organizations addressing community needs. He said he helps the homeless through his church. Churches, he said are the appropriate organizations for providing relief and ministering to the poor. Asked if they weren’t closed from COVID, he replied many local ministries have, in fact, expanded during the crisis. They’re “reaching out beyond the walls of the church … and seeing things that make them more connected to the entire community.”
Asked what he, as a commissioner and a man of faith, could say for a little newspaper article to help these people, he replied, “Rather than writing about my opinion, connect these people with resources.” He then rattled off some names of religious and philanthropical organizations, from the big go-to’s to tiny churches. When asked if they weren’t tapped out, he insisted they had a lot of capacity.
Belcher added now is a difficult time; people who want to serve are normally wary of reaching out to people who may be on drugs, mentally ill, or too proud to admit they have a need. Now, those same people could have a deadly disease. Then, complicating attempts to help and be helped is an abundance of news stories of fraudsters and worse hiding behind charitable fronts.
And so, for those who feel life’s problems are too big, it’s OK to reach out. Prayers are often answered through other people, and people love to serve. We all serve imperfectly, so feel free to shop the question. Think of welfare not as consumption, but fuel to get back into creative/productive mode.
For those wanting to help, knowing that you don’t know what you’re doing is a great asset, because people normally resent know-it-alls trying to “organize” them. If it feels safe, ask some questions to break the ice.
For those, who, for very good reason, are reluctant to dig into their pockets, open their homes, or even approach, a good starting place might be United Way’s 2-1-1. Dialing 211 on the phone will connect the caller with an automated menu that allows them to narrow down the problem and be connected with appropriate, vetted service providers, whether public or private.
In Other Matters –
Somewhat cryptically, at the last commissioners’ meeting, Anthony Penland requested that a discussion of staff’s response to “an issue at polling places” be added to the agenda. He had received an email and had another conversation, and he wanted to know what was being done to assure people would feel safe voting.
Fletcher Tove, the county’s preparedness director, reported that, beginning two weeks ago, several key players have been meeting weekly to address the greatest threats anticipated entering the election season. First, there were natural disasters, like winter storms, flooding, and loss of power which could affect one or more voting locations. Then, there was “stuff seen across the country,” otherwise known as voter intimidation. Responses to blocked parking locks and faked long queues were being developed. The group was also looking at how to handle civil unrest anticipated in the weeks following the election as final vote counts would be delayed due to unprecedented levels of mail-in balloting.
In response to Chair Brownie Newman, Tove said there were state and national hotlines for reporting voter intimidation. One example would be 866-OUR-VOTE. People could also call 911. The county is in the process of setting up a special 911 response line dedicated to voting issues.