It Takes a Village Hero

Michael Absher, CEO of Only Hope, was homeless his last year in high school.

Michael Absher, CEO of Only Hope, was homeless his last year in high school. Photo by Tim Robison.

Homelessness is hard to see in Hendersonville. It’s not apparent driving down wide, picturesque Main Street, where even the traffic lights are hung low, to keep the view intact. Life-sized painted bear statues, the city’s whimsical hallmark, hold out their thick paws — but they’re not looking for change.

Benches lining the sidewalk are dedicated to important civic figures; no one sleeps on them, at least not while the sun shines. Hendersonville is proud of its vibrant image, its bustling desirability.

“People worry here about how [public homelessness] would look,” says Michael Lee Absher, 26. The walkways are thronged with visitors and residents. Many retired, mostly affluent, they dip into boutiques, museums, and award-winning bistros.

Earlier this year, Absher picked up a major award of his own. He is a property manager, a part-time teller at Wells Fargo Bank on Main Street — and the full-time CEO of Only Hope WNC, his nonprofit that helps serve the needs of homeless youth in Henderson County.

Out of the more than 25 million people employed by Fortune 500 companies, including Wells Fargo, only 55 were chosen by Fortune magazine as “Heroes of the 500.” According to an excerpt on Fortune’s website, it’s a designation reserved for those “whose extraordinary acts of bravery, kindness, and selflessness are changing people’s lives.”

Honored as one of the 55 heroes, “I was very excited, and surprised at the same time,” says Absher. More importantly, though, for him, the award “helped expose Only Hope to the national spotlight.” His yearly overnight “Sleep Out” event, held in November on the steps of the Henderson County Courthouse, demonstrates the physical hardships of youth homelessness. It has already drawn support from Senator Tom Apodaca, who attended last year’s Sleep Out and has introduced a bill in the state Senate that would reassess the needs of this vulnerable population.

Yet Absher’s group is organized with a microlocal focus. Homelessness in Hendersonville, he stresses, “is less visible. It’s more secretive.” Civic pride demands it, but geography also plays a role. Beyond Main Street and its arteries, Henderson County, with its hundreds of apple orchards growing centuries deep, turns into countryside very quickly.

“It’s a rural thing,” says Absher. Unlike in other cities, nearby and around the nation, the problem is hidden, and often found down unpaved roads. In one common scenario, a destitute family with young children might bounce around to various relatives or friends, some of them perhaps already crowded in substandard housing, including mobile homes inadequate for the number of people living in them. Or the family might live in their last possession: their car.

Homeless teens, typically ensnared in multigenerational poverty — who’ve run away because of violence or abuse, or been thrown out or abandoned because of poor grades, drug use, sexual activity, sexual orientation, or, most universally, irreconcilable family conflict — do their own couch surfing, take refuge at work, or spend time in one of the county’s two shelters: the domestic-violence nonprofit Mainstay and the Hendersonville Rescue Mission.

Speaking to Bold Life’s Jen Nathan Orris this past spring, Matthew Gruebmeyer, director of Title 1 and Homeless Services at Henderson County Schools, remarked: “Rural poverty is a lonely form of poverty.” Because it’s more out of sight, it is perhaps more out of mind. Gruebmeyer noted to Orris that rural areas often lack community centers and other central gathering places for teens, upping the isolation factor for kids already estranged from their families.

Absher works with Gruebmeyer and two other administrators, case managers Susan McKenzie and Frank Edney, who help identify homeless kids among the hundreds of them in the Henderson County school system. He maintains a supply closet filled with hygiene products, school supplies, and a variety of food, recently expanding this service into Haywood County. (He’ll pay for short motel stays, too, for kids in emergency situations, such as harsh winter weather.)

Absher also coordinates “Host Homes,” where local families can unofficially house a homeless teen. Seventeen Henderson County families have registered to become Host Homes; eight of them currently have a homeless teen staying with them.

Since 2009, when he began Only Hope, Absher has wanted to open a multi-bed home for what the law calls “unaccompanied” students: those claimed by no parent or guardian. Boosted in part by the Fortune 500 award — “we’ve been busier this year than in all the past five years,” says Absher — he’s about to see his vision realized in brick and mortar.

After recently receiving $11,000 from Cummings Cove Golf & Country Club, a donation that crowned six months of “intense fundraising,” Absher’s nonprofit has rented and outfitted a building to house homeless students.

He hopes to open Dream Home on January 1, 2016 “if everything goes right.”

The “Housing First” Model
He won’t call himself a pioneer. However, Absher — who works up to 75 hours a week between his three jobs — reveals that his organization is the only one of its kind in North Carolina, and among just a handful nationwide, based on a model created in the last ten years.

“It’s an untypical approach,” says Absher. He and his staff of volunteers don’t regularly get referrals from the Department of Social Services, because of the considerable red tape involved. Instead, they favor the “Housing First” model.

This method, he says, “is more compassionate.” Every homeless kid, he points out, “is different. But first, we get them housed. That part is streamlined. It happens before anything.”
Then, he says, “We get to know them.” Much later comes doctors’ visits or psychiatric evaluations. These are among the processes that DSS would implement at the outset, before it assigned teens to state-regulated housing.

But Only Hope considers safe shelter priority number one. For its Host Home program, the nonprofit conducts interviews and background checks to make sure the adults there “are fully capable” to house kids. Unlike in the state foster-care system, the family is not paid for its services, although it does receive donations of clothing and supplies from Only Hope.

Melissa and Bill Beal were the first parents to evolve as a Host Home family, signing on with Only Hope shortly after they took in a now-10th-grade boy, adding him to their large family that includes six kids still living at home.

“He’s a good boy, a very wise young man,” says Melissa. “He’s learned a lot from what he’s been through.”

Before he came to the Beals, the teen was sleeping on the couch at home, in a situation “having to make decisions no 14-year-old should have to make,” says Melissa. This included taking care of younger siblings, going for years without medical or dental care, and experiencing abandonment, from which he still suffers emotional fallout: one parent drifted in and out of the home, and the other lives in a faraway state. (Neither parent is involved in the teen’s life anymore.)

“Basically,” says Bill, “he was living in survival mode all the time. He never knew any peace.” After a whirlwind introduction — less than a week after learning about him, they accepted responsibility for their new charge — they discovered he had been powering through his days with pneumonia.

“We took him to the hospital,” says Bill. “We wouldn’t have known otherwise. Even now, he doesn’t complain if he’s sick. He learned not to.”

“I would say coming here was a 180-degree lifestyle change from what he knew before. He finally got to be a kid,” says Melissa.

He could let go, enjoying a bed of his own and time to play. “He gets along great with our other kids. They’ll be out on the trampoline jumping till dark, until I have to remind them, ‘Okay, we do have neighbors,’” Bill says with a laugh.

But “being a kid” also means doing “contributions” (i.e., chores) and staying involved in other parts of the family culture. Their hosted teen now makes As and Bs instead of Ds and Fs, and is saving money for his first car. The Beals are encouraging him to think of his adult future, whether that’s the military, college, or another path.

“That’s one area where Michael is helping us so much,” says Bill. “He suggested counseling as the best way to handle some of these emotional issues coming up after high-school graduation.” At the beginning, he notes, Absher also “helped immensely” in making the initial contacts to smooth the teen’s transition into the Beal home, including handling the paperwork of transferring school districts.

In general, Absher steps in to offer informal guidance, as well as taking kids in the program on occasional shopping trips for new things to wear as they grow, or before school starts — part of the personal care Only Hope offers that is so markedly different from state-sponsored guardianship.

“Clothes that have tags on them mean a lot,” says Bill.

Their experience hasn’t been without its challenges. Early on, their teen visited his biological family for brief holiday stays and came back with a re-hardened attitude. Gradually, though, “he has left that old lifestyle behind,” says Bill. If he encounters peers whose situations mirror negative aspects of his former life, “he gravitates away from all of that. He’s done. He doesn’t want it anymore.

“When he first came to us,” adds Bill, “he would sometimes have a little smile on his face, but never a full one. Now he grins all the time.”

Because he’s been there
All Host Homes are different. But it’s the immersion in typical family dynamics that can help once-floundering teens gain emotional traction, away from unhealthy chaos and onto a path of normalcy.

“These kids can participate in supportive family activities. They might have the option to go to church, but they don’t necessarily have to,” remarks Absher.

However, there is one thing an Only Hope kid must do to live with a host family, or at Dream Home: stay in school. For older teens at Dream Home, the organization will also help with the life skills they’ll need after high-school graduation — from cooking to apartment hunting.

By his own account, Absher makes “good use of available resources.” His program is logistically well finessed, which enables expansion. But there’s no room for hierarchy, none of the top-down intimidation that can happen when powerful officials redirect kids’ lives.

Because this CEO has been there. Embodying a well-known local success story in his intelligent blue eyes, ready smile, and seemingly self-protective hunched posture, Absher was homeless himself during his last year of high school. Less than a decade ago, a confluence of family catastrophes resulted in a kid with nowhere to turn.

He found a temporary place in a now-closed youth home, and, with help from caring school administrators, he managed to become student-body Vice President, ace challenging math coursework, take on extracurricular activities, and hold down a job, all on the path to graduation.

“Because of my experience,” says Absher, “my approach is always going to be more sympathetic.”

Only Hope WNC hosts its annual Sleep Out fundraiser Friday, November 6, 6pm, to Saturday, November 7, 8am, outside the Henderson County Historic Courthouse (on the 200 block of South Main Street). For information about sponsoring or participating in the event, call 828-693-5499 or see www.onlyhopewnc.org.

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