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Gaston County leaders confront homelessness crisis

Gaston County Commissioners voted Tuesday to create an intergovernmental agency task force on homelessness.

GASTONIA, N.C. — Gaston County commissioners met Tuesday and voted unanimously to create a homelessness task force. The task force will review how many people are homeless, what barriers people face seeking help, and review potential solutions.

John Mills, the director of social services for The Salvation Army in Gastonia, is optimistic about the possible changes resulting from a task force.

"Just more collaboration and communication as far as our services because really no one agency can do it all," Mills said. "I think it'd be much more stronger focus as far as our clientele and just trying to help them more."

Dwayne Burks is the director and chaplain of The Gateway, which connects people with chronic crises to relief programs to lift themselves out of homelessness.

He said there are two challenges with Gaston County's homelessness issue: affordable housing, and government services and non-profits in the county that are siloed in their efforts yet have overlapping responsibilities.

Burks said in The Gateway's last count, they had 5,600 people receiving Supplemental Security Income from the federal government, which is under $900 a month.

But he said, at any given time, the county only has about 2,200 rental units total, with a median price of $800 a month.

"It's wonderful to see the growth that we're seeing in our community," Burks said. "But we're also gentrifying because we're not planning ahead for that."

He said Gaston County has a unique challenge because outside of Gastonia, there are few options for people seeking help.

"We need a pathway for those folks that's clearly delineated, 'This is how you get yourself out of homelessness,'" Burks said.

The number of people in Gaston County on the verge of homelessness is also on the rise.

Crisis Assistance Ministry in Gastonia helps people facing an emergency crisis situation by providing food, financial assistance, or limited medications.

Kim Wheeler, the nonprofit's director, said the pandemic's placed more people on the brink of homelessness.

"Most of the people we're seeing are new applicants who have never been in this position," Wheeler said.

From March 2020 to February 2021, the non-profit distributed $365,000 in emergency rent and utility payments, which was more than double the amount during the same period in 2019 to 2020.

Here's a breakdown of who will be on the task force: 

  • A member of the board of commissioners who will chair that task force
  • A representative of the elected board or council of each of the cities or towns
  • A local faith community representative that geographically represents the county
  • A county health department representative appointed by the county manager as well as a social service representative
  • A Gaston County police department representative 
  • A United Way county representative 
  • Aston County Salvation Army representative 
  • Gaston/Lincoln/Cleveland Continuum of Care planning committee 
  • A Catherine’s House Sisters of Mercy representative

Commissioner Tracy Philbeck was approved as the chairman of the task force.