Summit hopes to bring homelessness home

Local agencies are making progress towards implementing the “10-year Plan to End Homelessness,” but they need more resources and support. That was the theme that emerged from the “2011 Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Summit,” held March 25 at the Masonic Temple in downtown Asheville.

More than 50 representatives of agencies such as Homeward Bound and the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry gathered to take inventory of the area’s homeless situation and brainstorm how to best improve things going forward.

Robin Merrell, a member of the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee Board, emphasized that since the plan’s adoption in 2005, it’s had a significant impact. As of the last point-in-time count in January 2011, the city’s homeless population was 498, compared to 518 in 2010 and 689 in 2004. Of those 498 people, 126 of them were considered to be “chronically homeless,” a 61-person dip from last year.

Despite the tough economic times, Merrell and others credit a “housing first” model — in which homeless folks are placed in housing immediately, without preconditions such as finding a job or getting treatment for addiction — for much of the improvement.

Success Story

Patricia Whitmore, who lived on the streets of Asheville for 14 years, says the initiative saved her life.

After prison time for selling drugs, Whitmore landed at the Homeward Bound’s “Room in the Inn” program, which functions as a mobile crisis shelter for women. Over a 10-month period, Whitmore received food and shelter, and she got help finding a place to live. Homeward Bound also helped put her in touch with substance abuse treatment services.

“It was a home away from home,” she says, noting how quickly the nonprofit helps people find homes. Whitmore, who says that she’s been off drugs now for 16 months, adds that the most helpful thing about the service was its requirement to “be in at night.” Without that, “I probably would’ve been out there doing the same thing, drugging or in jail,” she admits.

Just three weeks ago, Whitmore’s support team helped her move into more permanent digs, and they’re helping her seek Social Security disability. She says she was seriously injured in a car wreck in 1989 but never sought support until now.

“There’s help out there for us,” she says. “I was homeless for 14 years. You just have to open the doors. If you don’t know where it is, ask questions. I ask a whole lot of questions.”

More resources needed

Meanwhile, Merrell worries that in this tough economic climate, the money available to help people like Whitmore is drying up.

Leaders at the summit debated over lunch on how to gain more support and resources for the initiative.

Brian Alexander, executive director of Homeward Bound, pitched better marketing.

“We know what works. Things are working. If we had enough resources in our community, we could end homelessness right now,” he said. “Whether or not we can do that is dependent or not on if we get the word out to the community. … In order to maximize what we can do with the 10-year plan, we’re going to have to educate the wider public about what we’re doing. … so we can build the kind of resources that we need.”

In response, Dwight Butner of the the Asheville Downtown Association emphasized that marketing the plan needs to speak to peoples’ pocketbooks. He also noted that it would likely gain support if it more clearly defined the difference between homelessness and vagrancy.

“Everyone at this table is devoted to this plan. But if you go talk to people who are not, some of them are sitting there wondering why their tax dollars are going to pay to support someone who, in their view, is an indigent drunk,” he explained. “You have to say, ‘unless we want indigents laying all over the community and dying under bridges, we need to do this, and it saves us this much money.’”


Homeless Initiative Coordinator Amy Sawyer welcomes participants to the Asheville Homeless Summitt Thursday.

Photos by Jerry Nelson

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Jake Frankel is an award-winning writer and reporter who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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