Leigh Snyder teared up several times as she spoke to well over 100 people who had gathered for a forum on family homelessness in downtown Asheville on Nov. 6. The event, sponsored by Homeward Bound of Asheville, brought together activists, volunteers, community leaders, business owners and local politicians — enough to easily fill the Celine and Company Catering’s large banquet hall at 49 Broadway.
In addition to Snyder, the forum featured a presentation from Richmond, Va., native Kelly King Horne, who spoke on homelessness efforts in that city, as well as a panel discussion made up of Snyder, Horne and three other civic workers: Emily Ball, housing services director for Homeward Bound; Christine Craft, homeless liaison for Buncombe County Schools, and Angela Pittman, social work services director for the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services.
The city and county enacted a joint approach to end chronic homelessness within 10 years in 2005, and as of late 2014, the area has seen an 84 percent reduction. What has risen, however, is the number of homeless families and children. Homelessness does not have one definition — it does not necessarily mean sleeping under a bridge. There are many families that are able to find places to sleep, friends to stay with, shelters that will take them. But what characterizes all forms of homelessness is a lack of stability.
“Stability is the bottom from which everything else comes,” said Horne. “In [Richmond], approximately 25 percent of people in shelters are people in households. What we know about homeless families in our community [is that they] are sort of a subset of families in poverty. Most families in poverty do not become homeless. One family is obviously too many, but the number is not that big. It’s solvable. We can get our arms around it.”
Horne is the director of the Richmond-based nonprofit Homeward. While Homeward and Homeward Bound are two different entities, the organizations share similar methodologies. Both operate on a “housing-first” model that functions on a basic principle: Before job training, before case management, before anything, housing security is required for successful homelessness prevention and maintenance.
This is especially important for family homelessness, says Horne, because evidence indicates there is a cyclical component to homelessness, carried from childhood to adulthood: “Our data has shown relatively consistently that about 14 percent of homeless adults have been in foster care or homeless as a child.”
Snyder embodies this cyclical aspect: “I came from a family of five siblings and a single mother. There was a lot of abuse. … My mom was an alcoholic and an IV drug user. It was completely dysfunctional … being homeless as a child. … It’s not easy not knowing where you’re going to sleep, where you’re going to eat.”
The family moved constantly, she explained, and bounced between having and not having a dwelling. When she was 8, their home got raided by police. It took two years for Snyder to get into foster care after that, and while she describes her foster mother as “very loving,” eventually Snyder was placed back with her mother, who on the surface seemed to have changed.
“I guess I could say [she] kind of duped me, is the way I like to put it,” she says. “I truly believed she was sober. I remember the ride home … with my mom — and she lit up a joint.”
From there Snyder’s life was a constant cycle of moving forward, but seeing whatever progress she’d made dashed without her input. She was thrown out of her mother’s house — “I couldn’t stand being a part of that environment,” she says — and became homeless once more, bathing in carwashes and using gas station bathroom hand dryers to dry her hair.
She met a man who she believed was “a knight in shining armor. He owned a restaurant and a store, and seemed pretty put together.” They had a daughter together before Snyder found out the truth.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “he owned his restaurant and his store because he sold cocaine.
“Maybe I didn’t want to see it,” she added. “Maybe I turned a blind eye. I don’t know.”
Snyder left with her daughter, homeless again, only to get pulled back four years later, hauled in front of the court, indicted for knowing about and not reporting her former boyfriend’s crimes.
Snyder earned her GED diploma while she was incarcerated. After her release, she started a new job, and for the first time in a long while, there was relative stability.
“Things were looking up to me,” she says.
Then her daughter was murdered by the former boyfriend. And as she was burying her daughter, a person she had testified against got out of prison and made it his life mission to “chop my head off,” necessitating Snyder’s entrance into witness protection and her relocation to the area.
If Snyder’s life were made into a movie, it would be mocked for being unrealistic and contrived. It demonstrates that homelessness is very often not much about personal volition or choice but almost fatalistic circumstance — quite analogous to the Greek tragedy, where fickle gods and indifferent fate control destiny.
“I think sometimes that people think being homeless is something you’re ‘choosing,’” she said later that night. “I hear even some of my own friends say, ‘What’s wrong with that guy? Why doesn’t he go get a job at McDonald’s?’ And there’s so much more to it. Maybe for some people it’s that simple, but a lot of times it’s not. It wasn’t for me.”
But for the grace of God…
“Most people,” said Horne, “are going to reach out to family and friends to not destabilize. … A big factor in predicting homelessness is not having friends or family who can be your support network. Most people who fall into homelessness don’t have that. … It’s really ‘there, but for the grace of God go I.’”
The panelists answered multiple questions regarding the intricacies of the issue: why family homelessness occurs, what are barriers to solving the issue, and what are the long-term effects of homelessness on children. Many of the answers were debates that have been simmering in Asheville for years.
“A significant barrier is affordable housing,” said Ball. “And this is something I’m going to be saying all night. I think when we talk about ending homelessness as a community, you should know that we know how to do it, [and] we’re pretty good at it. The thing that we really lack is that housing.”
According to Homeless Initiative Coordinator Heather Dillashaw, who rounded out the evening with a small speech, the average market rate as of Dec. 2013 for a one-bedroom apartment in Asheville is $784 per month, $925 for a two-bedroom, and $1,118 for a three-bedroom, all not including utilities.
But there are limited supplies of dwellings in the city. According to Dillashaw, 88 percent of rental apartments are at market rate, with only a 4.6 percent vacancy rate. Only 11 percent are deemed affordable, and of those, only 1.4 percent are vacant at any given time.
The definition of “affordable” housing is based on algorithms developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which uses an area’s median family income as the basis for its recommendation. The fiscal year 2014 median income for the Asheville metropolitan area is a hair over $56,000. Using this number, HUD set the standards for rents that would qualify for affordable housing; at the moment, this constitutes a rent level of $723 dollars per month for a one-bedroom, $857 for a two-bedroom, $1,100 for a three-bedroom, and $1,426 for a four-bedroom apartment. All of these rates already include utilities.
How affordable housing is, however, depends on other factors as well, said Pittman: “A living wage is really important,” she said. “We talk about that a lot. As we develop affordable housing, we have to have a living wage to sustain that.”
“We have a tough economy here in Buncombe County,” said Ball. “We have a really service-industry driven economy. Most jobs that are available to people are not the kind of jobs that will support them and their children.”
According to local advocacy organization Just Economics WNC, the living wage in Asheville is $10.35 per hour with health insurance, and $11.85 an hour without.
And the impact on those children makes it very clear why homeless children often become homeless adults.
“There’s a huge impact on education for kids,” said Pittman. “When you’re homeless, it’s really hard to learn to read or to add. Kids who are homeless also are at a prime risk for physical or sexual abuse, and that has obvious repercussions. They’re also diagnosed more often with mental health issues, and behavioral and emotional health issues.”
“Trauma is a short-term and long term effect of homelessness,” Craft said. “Students who go through traumatic situations…Their brains are physically different. They’re changing because of the trauma that they’re in. So perhaps it’s not ADHD, perhaps it’s trauma. They can’t sit still because they don’t know where they’re going home to that night. When you’re hungry, and all you’re thinking of is when it’s time for lunch, you’re not really focusing on math. This isn’t just homeless kids, obviously, but typically most of our kids who experience homelessness have been through a traumatic experience.”
According to Craft, the children she tracks move an average of three times a year, and statistically every move puts a child four to six months behind in school. “So if you do the math,” she said. “Those kids are a year and a half behind, most of them are coming into the school system with that lack of ability to read at grade level. They’re already at a huge disadvantage.
“According to one study,” she added. “There’s more spent on providing foster care due to homelessness than if we were to prevent foster care due to homelessness in the first place by providing supportive housing from the start.”
“Homelessness is really an issue that crosses all political definitions,” said Horne. “We know we’re solving this problem together. It is urgent, but it is solvable. We can put our arms around these numbers, work together differently.”
And in the name of working together differently, panelists had a couple of suggestions for how people can help that require basically no effort whatsoever:
“One thing you can do is rent to us in Homeward Bound,” said Ball, adding: “I’m really staying on message tonight because it’s so critically important. If you own rental property, we would love to talk with you about working together. If you don’t own rental property, I bet you know someone who does.”
“Don’t be a NIMBY,” said Craft. “Don’t be ‘not in my backyard’ about affordable housing. Learn about it, support it. I have seen what would have been amazing communities shot down because neighbors didn’t want to see ‘those people’ moving in next door.”
“Celebrate the successes,” Pittman urged.
“I think we need to remind ourselves all parents and all children are deserving,” said Horne. “Whether they’re compliant or not, whether they’re kind or not–they may not be able to be kind. So we should help them anyway. Believe that people can be in housing. Believe it can be different.”
“Be willing to see me,” Snyder said. “Just see me, and be willing. … There were little angels in life that would intervene. That’s what I called them — ’cause they would come at the times when I needed it most. The way to touch a life — it’s beyond anything money could buy.”