Like many natives, Kaitlin Baker, executive director of the South Davidson Resource Center (SDRC), remembers the security of growing up in a thriving Denton community. She also recalls a major shift occurring, as rampant job loss brought a proud Davidson County to staggering levels of poverty, unemployment, and reliance on community resources for self-sufficiency. In 1993, SDRC began providing food, clothing, and utility assistance in response to the growing number of Denton and Silver Valley families lacking adequate transportation to Lexington or Thomasville for work or assistance.
The Weight of Economic Crisis
During the early 1990s, Davidson County families began to feel the weight of what would become more than a decade of economic downturn. Davidson County endured a host of heavy furniture job losses during a fifteen-year span, which included prestigious local brands like Lexington Home Brands and Thomasville® Furniture manufacturers shifting production offshore. The exodus also devastated related industries that relied heavily on manufacturing business relationships.
According to the figures reported through the North Carolina Labor and Economic Analysis Division, between 1990 and 2012, average furniture manufacturing employment in Davidson County plummeted eighty-five percent from 8,806 to 1,342 workers.
While the entire state felt the impact of furniture jobs affected by offshoring and plant closings, Davidson County was considered one of the “hardest hit” and was among the top North Carolina counties with the most layoffs.
Hope on the Horizon
While the community isn’t out of the red from economic turmoil, hope is on the horizon. Annual unemployment rates in Davidson County rose sharply during a fifteen-year period but seemed to reach a peak of thirteen percent in 2009. While the rates of unemployment in the county have exceeded state rates every year, the gap between the rates has been on a downward trend as leaders seek to diversify the economy to include retail, health services, and tourism and recreation as economic drivers.
Meanwhile, community members are still upholding their commitment to the number of charities that have emerged. As agencies continue to address critical human service needs, some pleas for assistance are revealed in monthly calls to local agencies and emergency needs hotlines, like United Way’s 211.
According to United Way Executive Director Brittany Pruitt, there were 8,800 calls from May 1, 2017 to May 30, 2017 that connected local families with approximately 126 nonprofit and governmental resources. The top results vary on a monthly basis. May’s percentage of requests reflected needs for housing and shelter: rent 38.1 percent, utilities 17.8 percent, food 7.6 percent, healthcare 6.8 percent, and transportation 4.2 percent.
The statistics related to poverty, low wage work, and a still relatively high (but descending) unemployment rate, make a case for why the work of supporting local charities is not complete, but the concern about how families can achieve self-sufficiency isn’t merely a local one.
The 2017 Self-Sufficiency Standard Report for North Carolina defines how much income families of various sizes and composition need to earn to make “ends meet” without any public or private assistance. In Davidson County, for one adult, one preschooler, and one school-age child to make “ends meet” with no outside assistance (child care, housing, etc.), one working parent would need to make $20.50 per hour or approximately $42,640 annually. Those earning numbers are currently out of reach for most Davidson County families. And since United Way released the report, exploring the cost of different pathways to improve economic security helps families chart realistic paths to achieve and maintain financial stability. United Way understands the need for local charities.
“A strong community is one where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential,” said Pruitt. “These reports provide an accurate picture of what it really costs to live in Davidson County. We hope they will be useful to families, advocates, community
leaders, and policy makers as we all work toward the goal of financial stability for Davidson County families.”
Judge Not Your Neighbors’ Self-Sufficiency
Self-sufficiency isn’t a first concern for Bob Harmon and the team at Open Hands Ministry—it operates on the core values of “More Grace, Less Judgment.” The nonprofit doesn’t receive United Way funding; in fact, the majority comes from the generosity of the United Methodist Western Conference.
It began as a Bible Study that turned into weekly meal programs and has outgrown several venues in the area. Currently, the program operates two feeding sites and a Mercy Shelter at the historic Saint Stephen’s United Methodist Church in Lexington. The ministry transformed the church’s Sunday School area into a place for ministry, clothes, diapers, meals, and community referrals.
The ministry has faced local criticism for providing tents to those who are sleeping on the streets. But Harmon doesn’t intend to end the “tent ministry,” noting it provides a bit of shelter to those with absolutely no other options. They subsequently meet with these homeless folks to try to find solutions. “It’s not ideal,” Harmon admitted, “but you would be surprised how many people are living outside. If there is no other option, we give them a tent. We don’t tell them where to put it, but we have had people who found a friendly place and lived in the tent for up to two years.”
The ministry also opens its doors for an all-night prayer meeting and silent meditation when the temperature drops below twenty degrees. The gathering includes dinner and breakfast, but Harmon is clear that Open Hands is not a shelter—this is all done as part of Open Hand’s judgment-free zone.
Harmon’s willingness to stand out in the cold to serve food to those living in cheap motel rooms and his drive to find ways around regulations to open his doors to families in dangerously cold temperatures, exemplifies the continued resilience of the nonprofits in Davidson County. Like the many nonprofits doing good for their causes, Open Hands represents the creed “Believe the good in Davidson County. Be the good in Davidson County.”