When Jerri Young overheard the middle and high school students of her youth group at Marion’s First United Methodist Church talking about poverty and homelessness, she was concerned.
“Homelessness is not what they think it is,” Young said. She wanted the students both to lose the stigma they attached to homelessness and understand it in a tangible way.
“It’s their classmate right beside them,” Young said. “It’s the kid across the lunch table.”
With homelessness awareness a week around the corner, Young told her youth group they were going to fast from their beds and rely on whatever they would receive from the community for a single night. The students told their friends. They handed out fliers at school. Young’s hope was that the event would be a first step in bringing the issue to the forefront of her students’ minds.
About 25 students gathered on the front lawn of the church the Friday night before Thanksgiving. The majority of the students are in band at McDowell High School and brought instruments — a guitar, a ukulele, a trumpet. They played and sang and learned about homelessness in their community from employees of the nearby homeless shelters.
Community members donated food, gas heaters, boxes, and blankets for the event. McDowell County School Board member Amy Moomaw brought hot apple cider.
McDowell Mission Ministries operates two shelters in Marion — the Friendship Home for Women and Children and the John Thompson Center for Men. The women’s shelter is within a five-minute walk from the church. Friendship Home employee Crystal Sweatt said she thinks any change must come from young people and that she feels Christians have a specific call to help others today.
“I think it all starts with perception,” Sweatt said. “And that has to change before anything can change.”
Josh Smith, who spoke to the students Friday night and works at the John Thompson Center, said only about 0.2 percent of McDowell County’s population is homeless. According to the Center’s website, the homeless population has doubled since 2013. The shelters serve an average of 61 people per night.
Jacqueline Fox, a case manager at the Friendship Home, explained that the shelters attract people experiencing homelessness from outside the county and state sometimes. Because it offers 24/7 residence and uniquely intimate assistance, Fox said the shelters’ services attract people from outside the area. Last year, they served 300 new clients between the two shelters.
“A lot of people will get dropped off by the prisons or hospitals three counties away,” Smith said.
As the youth group socialized on the playground of Marion Elementary School, just across the street from the church, the Friendship Home was visible. Young mentioned how crazy it was that, within a community that feels so small and connected, people are suffering right next door.
“I think people have good intentions but just aren’t informed,” Young said.
At midnight, the group walked about a half a mile to the courthouse in downtown Marion in silence. They circled around, prayed, and sang songs as they held tea lights and reflected on the night.
Pastor Owens read a Bible verse from Matthew, Chapter 25. That’s the one where Jesus says feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked, or welcoming in a stranger is the same as doing these things to him. Owens encouraged students to live for the unfortunate and serve their neighbor.
Sophomores Sam Owens and Adam Miller said that when their youth group visited Chicago, their eyes were opened to the issue of homelessness in a real way. When they returned to the much different setting of McDowell County, they were searching for ways to help.
“You don’t realize it all the time,” Owens said. “There’s kind of a curfew in this town. Not a ton of people are even out past nine.”
But, Owens said, getting information out to the community is integral so that schools, shelters, and everyday citizens can help meet the needs of people who need to get back on their feet.
Before the walk to the courthouse, or the songs around the gas heater, or the playground adventure, a man named Scott walked up to the lawn and told the kids he had young children and was homeless.
Scott said he had checked and didn’t think there was availability at the men’s shelter that night. But Smith, who works there, knew there was at least one bed open. After talking with him about his situation and sharing chili and chicken salad, Smith took Scott to the shelter. Scott thanked the group of kids before he left.
“Peace and love,” Young said as Scott got in Smith’s car. “Come visit us.”