New numbers reveal more about Asheville’s homeless issue

Asheville’s homeless population declined in what city officials are dubbing “a good year,” according to an annual count conducted in late January. However, while the numbers may show that local programs are having an impact, one of the officials in charge of administering them says that economic pressures and a lack of affordable housing continue to create a difficult situation.

From January 2013 to January 2014, Asheville’s homeless population declined from 570 people to 533. The numbers came from a “point-in-time” count conducted Jan. 29 at local shelters and facilities across the city. The count is required for every locality that receives funds for housing from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“It’s a baseline number that tracks progress — or not — over time,” says Heather Dillashaw, coordinator of the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative. “We’ve seen significant change over time, good and bad, over the years. This year was a good one.”

City officials, according to a late March announcement of the initial numbers, took particular pride in the sharp decline in the chronically homeless, down to only 47 from the 293 identified in 2005. That year, local governments and nonprofits began a series of efforts to end chronic homelessness. While the numbers only fell slightly this past year (from 54 to 47), Dillashaw notes that the sharper decline between 2009-13, when the efforts hit a peak, shows the effectiveness of the plan in dealing with what was once a major problem.

Specifically, Dillashaw says that the improved coordination of local agencies, working together as part of the initiative, has helped to take the chronically homeless off the streets and ensure that the recently homeless return to housing more quickly than before.

“We’ve implemented some significant housing strategies over the last three years, and we’re starting to see the results of that — not enormous drops, but some significant drops,” she tells Xpress. “That means we’re making progress and some of the strategies we put in place are working.”

The initiative has also focused on “rapid rehousing,” which uses short-term assistance like providing security deposits and the first few months’ rent to get the newly homeless back into housing.

“That’s usually the bump most folks need,” Dillashaw adds.

However, “new people continue to come into the system, particularly because rents are out of reach for low-wage workers. The affordable housing stock is a piece of our equation that continues to not be adequate.”

Specifically, last year local government observed a sharp rise in the number of homeless who are young adults or have families, something Dillashaw attributes to rising housing costs, declining job opportunities and cuts to social services.

But the size of that part of the homeless population has stayed relatively unchanged from 2013, which, Dillashaw says, shows that it remains an issue but one that’s improving.

“The combination of the economy and drops in supportive services are continuing to be problematic for families,” she notes. “What we’re doing is working with a lot of other agencies and families to increase services like access to childcare and job training to give families the support they need to sustain housing in a way that’s affordable and safe.”

Counting the homeless population is notoriously difficult, and over the years local officials have noted that the point-in-time count might not include every individual and doesn’t count transient homeless who enter the city as the weather warms.

But Dillashaw tells Xpress that it does give an important glimpse of the scale of the problem, especially as the numbers provide a look at how big the service gaps in the local area are.

“The January count provides a more accurate count of the folks that are homeless here, from here and need to be housed here,” she says. “The rise in the numbers [during warm weather] tends to be folks that don’t stick around. We want to house the folks that want to be housed and want to live here.”

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