Look homeward, Asheville

Just over five years since its adoption, Looking Homeward: the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness in Asheville and Buncombe County needs tweaking, say those working on the issue. Utilizing the "housing first" model — in which homeless folks are placed in housing immediately, without preconditions such as finding a job or getting treatment for addiction — the Homeless Initiative has put a dent in the problem. According to a point-in-time count, the program placed more than 200 people in housing in 2009 alone, Coordinator Amy Sawyer reports.

Rolling up the sleeves: Participants at an annual meeting break into small groups to appraise the Asheville/Buncombe plan to address homelessness and talk priorities for the next year. Photo by Jonathan Welch

But gaps still exist in such areas as mental and physical health care, a dwindling supply of affordable rental units and follow-up transitional housing. That was the prevailing view at a Feb. 2 stakeholder meeting at the United Way Building in Asheville that was called to consider priorities for the year ahead.

In the shadow of the economic slowdown, affordable housing becomes an ever-more-precious commodity, and landlords can be even pickier about whom they rent to.

"Landlords say they don't want to work with offenders, and they don't have to work with offenders," noted Angela Denio of Homeward Bound, an Asheville-based nonprofit.

"This targets people with a criminal history or bad credit," said Mae Creadick of Pisgah Legal Services. "There needs to be some kind of appeal process — that's everybody that's in need of housing."

But the biggest need, she continued, is money to build more rental units and provide rent subsidies. "This is the time to be approaching the city and county for the funding for that," noted Creadick. (The Asheville City Council recently amended its Housing Trust Fund guidelines to set aside more resources for projects that include affordable rental units rather than for-purchase homes.)

People also need help paying the rent. "We need more medium-term rental assistance," said Jonathan Stansell, rental services coordinator at OnTrack Financial Education & Counseling. "'Housing first' implies there's a 'second.' What comes second?"

Putting it where it counts: Anthony Goodson (left) from the Asheville Housing Authority, and Mae Creadick (right) from Pisgah legal Services, affix stickers to posters showing where they think the homeless situation in BUncombe County needs the most attention. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Anthony Goodson of the Asheville Housing Authority spoke to the need for more hotel vouchers, noting that about 1,000 people are now on the waiting list for vouchers and an estimated 1,000 more are eligible to apply. Goodson said he'd relayed that message to Mayor Terry Bellamy.
Perhaps the best news is that,thanks to a lot of hard work building a common database for the various agencies involved, the initiative now has access to useful information about the local homeless population. "It looks like this community is really ahead of the curve in terms of looking at data," said Richard Leatherman of the Asheville VA Medical Center. "And that data is going to be very helpful as far as getting funding."

But extra attention needs to be paid to families whose makeup is not a good fit with existing shelters, said Meredith Hammond, director of the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry's women's shelter. "We get a lot of calls from families who have older males. That creates a difficulty: You have a mother with a 12-year-old boy in the women's shelter, and you can't put him in the men's shelter," she explained.

But a big goal of the group appeared to be collaboration. To that end, a Feb. 18 "faith summit" aims to bring together leaders from local faith organizations providing services for the homeless to talk about what each group is doing — and what isn't getting done (see below).

Meanwhile, at the Feb. 2 gathering, Heather Spencer of A HOPE took a look around the room and said it's time for all the agencies involved to leverage their combined clout to push for legislative action and funding.

"We have a pretty big collective voice," she said. "Let's use it."

"From Sandwiches to Solutions: an Asheville-Buncombe Faith Summit on Homelessness" will be held Thursday, Feb. 18, at the YMI Cultural Center (39 S. Market St. in downtown Asheville). The event will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; the $15 suggested donation includes lunch. For more information, call 259-5733.

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