A McDowell County nonprofit is moving forward with a partnership that will allow it to begin offering services in Burke County.
In December 2022, Mission Ministries Alliance, formerly McDowell Ministries Alliance, announced it would be partnering with stakeholders in Burke County to begin developing a plan to expand. In addition to the new name, the organization also has brought in a new board with representatives from both counties. According to Interim Executive Director Lauri SoJourner, the move is being made, in part, because the agency already has been serving so many Burke County residents.
“We are and always have taken people from Burke County for the program shelters and the overnight shelter,” she said. “Thirty-five percent of our clientele is outside of McDowell County with a majority of those being from Burke.”
The centerpiece of the agency since its opening 30 years ago has been its three shelters in Marion including an overnight low-barrier emergency shelter open to anyone who is without shelter.
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“My understanding is this is the only low-barrier shelter in the two-county region,” SoJourner said. “A low-barrier shelter makes it as easy as possible to begin receiving services, so you don’t have to already be clean in order to come into the shelter.”
Drug use is forbidden once somebody has been admitted, but Sojourner said no one is turned away unless they are a danger to staff or other clients.
“All people are worthy of shelter,” she said. “You don’t have to perform special tricks to be able to have a place to lay your head.”
MMA Board co-chair the Rev. Marshall Jolly called it a question of human dignity.
“At the end of the day, if you’re not providing a low-barrier shelter, you eventually have to deal with the question of, ‘how much is a human life worth to you,’” he said.
In addition to the emergency shelter, MMA also operates two program shelters, one for men and one for women and children. Every person who is admitted to the program shelters gets a case manager who helps discover the factors that led to a client’s period of homelessness and how to begin addressing those factors to help them get back into stable housing.
“For each client, they are all given a plan,” SoJourner said. “They all participate in some type of group … and they work with their case managers to identify the resources that they need.”
SoJourner said a major piece of the plan for many MMA clients is addressing substance abuse.
“About 75-80% of the folks who come to us have some type of substance use disorder,” she said. “One of the wrap-around services is that’s part of the (program shelters) is the substance use disorder program.”
Another wrap around service the agency offers is peer support.
“One of the things I think that is really amazing about our program is the number of staff that has lived the experience,” SoJourner said. “They’ve come so far that they get certified, so they are able to help people who are in it right now.”
In addition to the shelters, MMA also provides financial assistance and stabilization services for clients who are housing insecure, substance use disorder programs for people who are currently housed, and street outreach to try to identify and connect with those who would not come into a shelter for services. The Street Outreach program also provides case management and peer support, as well as life skills education, crisis counseling, connection to community partners, harm reduction, housing and more to residents living in camps, vehicles and other unsheltered locations.
In Burke County, the agency is still in its early stages, working to identify and develop a plan for the kinds of services it will offer. SoJourner said she currently is focused on developing partnerships and exploring community needs and how the agency might be able to fill them.
“It’s definitely still in its infancy stages,” SoJourner said. “But we’re excited to actually have Burke voices at the table now with the board so we can do our best to serve where it’s needed.”
Jolly, one of those Burke voices, said MMA is not interested in competing with services that already exist in Burke County.
“We’re not interested in duplicating resources,” he said. “We’re taking a strategic look at what Burke County’s needs are and trying to better understand how our organization can expand to meet those needs in cooperation with other existing partners.”
Jolly also called the move to expand an invitation for Burke County residents and leaders to come to the table.
“We know that not everyone who needs to be at the table is at the table,” he said. “So, reach out to your city or your county commissioners. If your pastor is not talking about these issues … make sure they are aware and it’s on their radar screen. There is a lot we can do from the point of education and advocacy that loosens up the ground and allows for collaboration and new things to grow.”
SoJourner also is available to come to local churches, civic groups or other organizations to make presentations.
For more information about McDowell Ministries Alliance, its programs or to inquire about inviting SoJourner making a presentation, visit the agency at www.missionministriesalliance.org or call 828-659-6490.