Hospitality House Takes on the Stigma of Homelessness in the High Country

Published Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 4:14 pm

By Michaela Herberg and Victoria Haynes

Of the entire population in western North Carolina, 43%  of all unsheltered families in North Carolina live in our 7 county region, with the majority being in Wilkes, Watauga and Ashe. According to Todd Carter, the director of development at Hospitality House, those experiencing homelessness often work and live their lives in the same places as the rest of the community. Yet, people still hold prejudices against these individuals, and Hospitality House is working to change that.

Faith Bradley, Food Service and Volunteer Coordinator for Hospitality House, stands inside her office, which also serves as the storage room for all the food which is used in food boxes. In January, the organization distributed 310 food boxes throughout the community, serving a total of 700-800 individuals, according to Bradley.

The non-profit is located in the Boone community and has been “helping rebuild lives since 1984” according to their website.

Entering the Hospitality House building, you notice heavy beams, large open windows and an atmosphere that many who live there describe as “home.” From appearance to advocacy, Hospitality House works to communicate a family dynamic to anyone in need who comes through the door.

“Its very much just a family, we care a lot. We care so much that sometimes it’s dangerous on your emotions,” Carter said. “We come at what we do from a place of understanding, trying to understand, and continuing to evolve our understanding.”

From the time a person asks for help to the time that help is longer required, this dynamic is maintained at Hospitality House. In addition, the programs established cover every area, from psychological well-being to career and financial management services.

“People think we are a homeless shelter, and we’re not,” Carter said. “We are just unique in that we operate so many different programs under one roof, and I think that’s the big difference. We aren’t a shelter, we’re a program.”

Nathan Adams, a 20-year-old student who has been a resident of Hospitality House for a little over one year, has grown familiar with the personal care that the organization provides.

“It has taught me how to deal with anything that life will throw at you, anything that is negative or positive,” Adams said. “I’ve been in the foster care system since I was 10. I’ve been kicked out of group homes, foster homes, so I came here. If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t be alive.”

According to Carter, experiences like Adams’ are not unusual.

“Right now, North Carolina has a foster care emergency. Per capita, we have more kids in foster care than any state in America,” Carter said. “And so kids are just being exited from group homes at 18 with no plan.”

Adams, who has been in the foster care system since he was 10 years old, can attest to the shortage of resources for those forced to leave group homes when they come of age.

Todd Carter standing outside of the entrance to Hospitality House. Carter is the current director of development at Hospitality House and has been with the organization for seven years. As the director of development, Carter handles all public and donor relations, marketing, fundraising and events.

“I came here with one pair of clothes,” Adams said. “In that time, you know, I didn’t have a penny to my name. I still don’t have a lot to my name, but it’s been a safe living environment that I can focus on my goals.”

The living environment Hospitality House has created is unique to the High Country, where they currently serve seven rural mountain counties in the surrounding area. The population of homeless individuals and families continues to grow each year, and with it the demand for housing and food resources.

“We had a record number, I think it was 78, kids that lived here at one point,” Carter said. “We have an 18-year old mom who showed up on the coldest day of the year with her two week old baby. She had a backpack, the carrier, and the clothes on her back and that was it. Negative wind chill outside. We put her in the computer lab because we had nowhere else to put her.”

These stories are often the ones that go unnoticed. According to Carter, the stigma of “the homeless” affects how people treat their residents, often dehumanizing them to the public.

“I think the biggest thing is, when people ask me, well, what can I do, the first thing I tell them is to come and eat a meal here. We want people to come and eat. Come and take a tour. See what we do,” Carter said. “Don’t just whisper about something you heard, come and actually walk in the door. I don’t know about your mind, but it’ll change your heart.”

The mission of Hospitality House, according to their website, is to rebuild lives and strengthen community by providing a safe and healthy environment for individuals experiencing homelessness and crisis. Rather than a homeless shelter, Carter encouraged people to think of Hospitality House as a “trauma-informed crisis center.”

“You don’t get to pick who is in our community,” he said. “Either we actually care about everybody, and we care about their story, and we want to help them and we want to understand them, or we don’t.”

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