Asheville struggles to make sure everyone has a home

In 2005, the city of Asheville adopted an official plan aimed at ending chronic homelessness by 2015, drastically reducing reliance on emergency shelters and streamlining support services to get people into permanent housing faster. The plan — dubbed “Looking Homeward: The 10-year Plan to End Homelessness in Asheville and Buncombe County” — was a cooperative effort involving local nonprofits, as well as city and county governments.

Ten years later, questions linger concerning the program’s results. The combination of a severe economic downturn, an acute shortage of affordable housing and the rising cost of living has hindered progress, officials say. But, despite setbacks, partners in the project are forging ahead with new initiatives to combat housing insecurity and ensure that those in need of shelter get it.

Great expectations

In 2005, an estimated 2,000 people experienced homelessness in Asheville and Buncombe County at some point during the year, according to the 10-year plan. With appropriate support, most of them (80 percent) were considered likely to find housing and get back on their feet in a matter of months.

Meanwhile, the chronically homeless — estimated to be 200 or so, or 10 percent of the total homeless population — received more than 50 percent of the resources provided to the overall group, consuming hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars annually.

In response, the Homeless Coalition, comprising city and county officials, business owners and representatives of local nonprofits, devised the 10-year plan in 2004. It outlined several goals: reducing the number of people becoming homeless; expanding permanent housing options for the currently homeless; decreasing the amount of time people had no home; and implementing pre-emptive services to prevent future cases of housing insecurity.

Perhaps the largest and most radical component was a shift away from making mental, physical and financial assistance the top priorities. Citing numerous studies, the plan’s developers believed providing housing first was a better way to help people in need.

Making headway

Ten years later, partner organizations say they’ve achieved several important victories. “We’ve seen a dramatic reduction in chronic homelessness,” says Brian Alexander, executive director of Homeward Bound of WNC.

“First, we’ve seen best practices, such as housing first, supportive housing and coordinated assessment, embraced by the community as the most effective and humane ways to serve individuals experiencing homelessness. Second, the community has created a system of care, working together on this issue rather than working separately as individual programs.”

A key starting point for these efforts is Homeward Bound’s day center, AHOPE. Besides the baseline services provided there — a hot shower, storage for belongings, phone and mail access, food and shelter from the elements — AHOPE also serves as a point of entry for those seeking housing assistance, says Beth Russo, director of communication and the annual campaign.

“We’ve been able to move over 1,300 people into permanent housing since we adopted the housing-first model and have an 89 percent retention rate,” Russo says.

Other Looking Homeward partners also cite major strides in key areas. “In 2003, we averaged nearly 700 homeless persons” on any given day, says the Rev. Scott Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry. Since then, ABCCM and its affiliates have added a significant number of both emergency and transitional beds to their facilities to serve those in need.

Rogers credits improved collaboration and specialization among agencies with effectively reducing the number of chronically homeless people, noting that ABCCM focuses specifically on housing about 220 veterans a day.

The best laid plans …

“Attempting to ‘count’ homeless folks is notoriously slippery,” notes the Rev. Amy Cantrell, a member of the Be Loved Community. “If someone chooses not to utilize AHOPE or a shelter, they may not be counted. It’s done on one particular day, so transience plays a role. And then there are whole segments of folks ‘doubled up’ with friends, relatives, etc., who are often not counted.”

Judging by the annual counts, however, the average local homeless population has dropped from 689 in April 2004 to 562 in January 2015. But that actually represents an increase over the 2014 figure (533), notes Christiana Glenn Tugman, the city’s homelessness coordinator. Meanwhile, the number of chronically homeless has fallen from 169 in 2005 to 74 today, a 56 percent drop.

“In many ways, the 10-year plan, with its housing-first model, was working well,” says Cantrell. But the 2008 recession dealt the plan a major blow, she notes, sending many residents who’d been living “paycheck to paycheck” into a housing crisis.

The significant decrease in chronic homelessness over the last decade, she says, has been offset by the rising numbers of people in emergency shelters and transitional housing. “It’s difficult to do the housing-first model when you have no houses to move people into. We are currently over 5,000 affordable housing units shy of what we need to meet the need for housing, according to the Bowen report,” Cantrell say.

Rogers, however, says help is on the way — and soon. ABCCM, he reports, is working with Homeward Bound, the city and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to reach “functional zero” on veteran homelessness by early 2016.

But for local nonprofits, program funding and the associated administrative costs, notes Alexander, remain constant concerns. “There’s a real disconnect among funders between what they’re willing to fund — usually direct program activities — and what it takes to actually operate the most effective services for this population.”

What’s next?

Although the 10-year plan may not have accomplished everything it set out to do, its successes and shortcomings alike spotlight what needs to happen next, says Tugman.

“The Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee is developing a five-year strategic plan now that the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness has come to an end,” she reports. The city is currently studying local data and national trends to help it plot the best way forward.

Increasing the supply of affordable housing has become most of these agencies’ central focus. “At its most basic, homelessness is caused by a lack of [available] housing,” says Cantrell. “We need to make sweeping law and policy changes that will create more affordable housing now and in the near future.”

Possible approaches, Cantrell notes, include “more funds in the Housing Trust Fund, utilizing land banking to create housing, offering supports to landlords, and flexible zoning laws or nondiscrimination laws that safeguard those who have vouchers.”

If you build it …

Other local organizations are also working to expand their facilities. ABCCM’s Veterans Village project is scheduled to open this year near ABCCM’s Veterans Restoration Quarters on Tunnel Road, says Rogers. Also in the works is Transformation Village, which will be near Interstate 26 and a bus line.

Meanwhile, Homeward Bound is working to expand AHOPE’s role as “the primary point of entry in the community for coordinated assessment,” says Alexander. “Much like the emergency room at our local hospital, coordinated assessment ranks these individuals in order of vulnerability, so we permanently house those most at risk first.”

This, notes Russo, may mean that Homeward Bound’s retention rate takes a hit, but that’s beside the point. “Statistics don’t really matter to us as much as making sure people are safe and sheltered and working toward being housed. That’s our job.”

However, partners in the 10-year plan, Russo says, need to provide clients with access to both jobs that pay a living wage and transportation to and from the worksite. “At any given time, between 10 and 15 percent of our homeless clients have a job that’s challenging for them to get to, because of the limitations of public transportation.”

Russo also hopes public perceptions of the homeless will continue to shift. To that end, says Tugman, “The city of Asheville, the advisory committee and key stakeholders will continue to endeavor to make awareness and discussion of the issues surrounding homelessness … part of the discourse of our community.”

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About Max Hunt
Max Hunt grew up in South (New) Jersey and graduated from Warren Wilson College in 2011. History nerd; art geek; connoisseur of swimming holes, hot peppers, and plaid clothing. Follow me @J_MaxHunt

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