‘Community Conversations’ is a stepping stone to aid local unsheltered population

Published 12:10 am Thursday, August 24, 2023

SALISBURY — It has become clearer and clearer that the answers on how to address the unsheltered population that continues to grow in Salisbury are becoming more complicated. Since there is no single way to solve this issue, it’s up to those in the community to discover what makes sense for the city and what will get the best long-term results.

Salisbury has been staying proactive in their attempts to help unsheltered people living here, but it does take more than members of staff and a few volunteers to see real change take place. To get as many people connected to find the solution, the Salisbury-Rowan NAACP organized a panel discussion meeting entitled, “Community Conversations: Addressing Homelessness in Our Community” allowing figures in Salisbury to lead a dialogue to go over what is being done to assist the unsheltered population, the complications that arise through their processes, and to hear from residents on what they believe they should focus on and answer their questions.

With Salisbury Post editor Elisabeth Strillacci acting as moderator, Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander, Homeless Liaison Dennis Rivers, Executive Director of Rowan Helping Ministries Kyna Grubb, and Rowan County Health Director Alyssa Harris made up the panel that took questions and comments from the audience of impassioned participants. Each of the panelists has a distinct perspective on how they handle unsheltered individuals in the county and they all agree on the overall complexity of what to do and how to do it.

Mayor Alexander shared her experiences with dealing with the unsheltered population and found out quickly that just finding housing for individuals was “not sustainable” and that a fresh approach was needed. After obtaining outside grant funding, the city was able to hire Rivers as homeless liaison. The entire panel commended Rivers for his work on personally meeting with unsheltered people where they are, inspiring Rowan Helping Ministries and the health department to do the same.

Rivers said the city has a Homeless Outreach Team consisting of the Salisbury Police Department, Rowan Helping Ministries, Rowan County Health Department, and the Salisbury VA Hospital that go to encampments and speak with unsheltered people to connect them to the right resources. The panel also said that several local agencies make up the Homeless Take Force that pulls their resources together to tackle challenges that can not be done alone. Some of the specific offerings Salisbury has for unsheltered people is helping acquire IDs, getting them to a detox center, providing financial assistance, and dealing with domestic violence situations.

Even though the unsheltered population still can have a negative public safety and environmental impact to the county, the panel agreed that there needs to be authoritative, but sensitive measures to correct this.

COVID has been a major factor in causing the kind of situation Salisbury is now. The cost of living has increased, with mental health and substance abuse struggles acting as obstacles as well. Harris said that one of the health department’s jobs is getting these unsheltered people access to Medicaid. For those in need of any kind of treatment, Harris explained that they need to be fully recovered before they receive housing so that it can be sustained for an extended period of time.

People in attendance aired their frustrations with what they’ve seen around Salisbury and the county, local business owners spoke on what can be done to see a better Salisbury 10 years from now, and some asked what is being done to help veterans specifically. Better communication was requested from both the public and the panel, so that as many people as possible are aware if that is going on, which helps better confront the bigger picture of being unsheltered. Alexander reminded that the city does not receive direct funds for human services, only the county does. She elaborated that the city will work on getting funding to pay for Rivers’ salary after the current grant ends. Harris said that the county is working on getting their own detox center, too.

At the end of the discussions, Rivers loved the “passion” from people asking questions and giving their ideas. “It’s definitely going to take a community effort,” Rivers said. One of the biggest things to overcome is that all cases are particular and it takes a more personal touch to rectify everything.

“All of them are facing different components for the reasons they are unsheltered. Just because you help one person, doesn’t mean you help everyone because everyone’s problem might be totally different,” Rivers said. “It’s just being able to meet them all where they’re at and try to connect them with those resources that can help them eventually.”

Grubb loved that the community conversation happened in the first place, but thinks the resolution is “complex” because it’s a hard reality that some people just do not want help. “It’s about journeying with people and I think a lot of those solutions that were being tossed out there are about the unique individual that we’re trying to help,” Grubb said. “You cannot make people do something. I think the challenge is building that relationship, giving a hope and a dream and a thought for a different tomorrow is going to be what can help us journey with people. It’s a one-on-one process.”

Grubb mentioned during the discussion there are plans for Rowan Helping Ministries to have 12 transitional housing units finished by the end of September and for permanent supporting housing to be their next project after that.

“I think we offer a lot of opportunity for the unsheltered population to move towards housing. There’s more community support and care and looking at the heart of the person and seeing them as a human being,” Grubb said.

Before everyone left at the end of the night, people prepared to attend the next Rowan County commissioners meeting to discuss potential funding for future programs and services tailor made for Salisbury and the county as a whole. More conversations like these in the future was met with enthusiasm, with the hopes that actual unsheltered individuals can be a part of them.

Kathryn Nolan brought up an idea to the panel to convert West End Plaza to a community complex to help the unsheltered population. Nolan was pleased to meet so many new people with the same love for Salisbury as she does and is looking forward to all she can accomplish now that she is better informed with all that is at her disposal.

“I learned so much. This city and county provide so many resources that I had no idea existed. So, I am impressed and blown away by what’s already available. I think I walk away inspired and energized to get in touch with these people, these connections that I’ve made, to see what else I can do. If we bring the community together, when we all lift each other up, we all rise,” Nolan said.