FLORENCE — Ashley Smith just began her second week as the new executive director for the Homeless Care Council of Northwest Alabama, but she already has plans to help the nonprofit grow larger than ever before.
“Things are coming along,” she said. “It’s off to a good start.”
Before taking on her new role, Smith served as the homeless management information system (HMIS) coordinator for United Way of Northwest Alabama for about six months. In that capacity, she said she also worked regularly with the Homeless Care Council.
One way Smith worked with the previous executive director, Christa Martin, was through the Point-in-Time survey. This helps the council measure the homeless population across Lauderdale, Colbert, Franklin, Lawrence, Marion and Winston counties.
“We did an actual physical count of the homeless population across the six counties,” Smith said.
She said the number — 373 as of January — accounts for both the sheltered and unsheltered homeless populations, as well as those who have fled from domestic violence situations, including students.
Smith said she enjoyed being part of United Way, but when Martin announced her departure, Smith knew it was an opportunity she had to pursue.
“The office was right down the hall," she said. "I was already doing different services and different jobs with the Homeless Care Council, so I kind of just felt like it was God’s plan and this was the direction I was supposed to go.”
Smith said one of her main concerns as the agency's new director is to grow community awareness of the “ongoing and growing” issue of homelessness.
She emphasized the homeless are not so different from everyone else.
“I feel like our job is to love on the people in our community and provide what services we can … so that (the community) is aware of who’s out there and that they’re real people that want to be seen and need to be helped,” she said.
Hydrate the Homeless is the agency's signature project. It aims to provide necessary items to the homeless to help them through the summer months. Smith said these items include water bottles, sunscreen, lip balm and cooling towels.
“The next thing after that is to try to implement another fundraiser or event for the Homeless Care Council — something new that hasn’t been done before,” she added.
In order to accomplish these goals, Smith wants to expand the board of directors and create more volunteer opportunities.
This effort will include filling existing vacancies on the board and adding new directors who "can jump in with some new, innovative, bright ideas that will get things rolling.”
Smith is open to ideas from volunteers as well.
Last week, she said more than a dozen members of the Florence High School baseball team volunteered to clean out the Homeless Care Council's storage room.
Having grown up exposed to community needs in Huntsville through her parents’ work in nonprofits, Smith said she developed a passion for helping people.
Before working with United Way, she earned a psychology degree from the University of North Alabama, and served as a case manager at Riverbend Center for Mental Health. Smith said she often encountered homeless people through that work.
Smith also serves on the board of directors for the Florence Education Foundation, and volunteers locally with her husband and two daughters with organizations such as Meals on Wheels and Room at the Table.
Still, she said a large part of her heart is with the homeless.
“Growing up in the nonprofit world and loving on other people in the community is just kind of a part of me, kind of in my blood,” Smith said. “I have a passion for helping people, giving back to the community, figuring out who needs you. I just fully believe that my purpose on Earth is to give back, and I think that this is a job that will allow me to do that and at the same time be self-fulfilled from that.”