Three Buncombe County shelters likely will add 43 beds for the area’s homeless population after the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved its half of the funding request at its Sept. 5 meeting.
Board Chair Brownie Newman and Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara were absent.
Commissioners allocated $875,000 of remaining federal COVID recovery funds to the project. The Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee sought the funding in response to recommendations in the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ Within Reach report. The City of Asheville will consider matching the contribution as part of the interlocal agreement, pushing the total to $1.75 million.
The Salvation Army will add 20 beds, and the Safe Shelter collaborative will rotate 20 new beds between Grace Episcopal Church, Grace Lutheran Church and Trinity United Methodist Church. The Haywood Street Congregation will add three beds for those who need medical care, behavioral health or substance abuse support services, according to a staff presentation. The funds will help the Salvation Army maintain its 45 existing beds, plus 20 new ones.
The Rev. Mike Reardon, associate rector at Grace Episcopal Church, said the Safe Shelter collaborative’s success last year, along with county and city funding, encouraged them to expand from 10 to 20 beds. Last winter, the 10-bed shelter was at West Asheville Presbyterian Church, whose congregation previously dissolved, but that building is now slated for demolition, Reardon told Xpress after the meeting.
This year, three churches will host the 20 beds on a monthly rotation, a commitment Reardon said is worthwhile because it’s not only the right thing to do, but it helps build bridges among diverse people in the community.
“It’s important now more than ever for the church community to be a beacon for goodness and decency in the world,” Reardon said. “It’s good not just for the marginalized, but for the wider community. It’s good for our church community to encounter people that are different, bring them in, hear their stories and then start to understand how we are also the same.”
He said they plan to keep the number of beds at 20 to prevent overcrowding.
However, the additional beds are only half of the 95 beds that the Within Reach report recommends. Commissioners earmarked an additional $3.8 million in COVID recovery funds for general housing and shelter needs, with the specifics to be determined later, according to County Manager Avril Pinder.
The shelter funding is part of a reshuffling of the last of Buncombe’s $50.7 million in American Rescue Plan funds. It includes $1.5 million originally earmarked for broadband expansion efforts, which Commissioner Terri Wells said the county was able to obtain elsewhere by applying for state grants and other funds.
In other news
Buncombe County would increase revenue from cellphone towers and improve service for residents if it approves a contract with Milestone Towers.
Vance Bell, operations manager for Buncombe’s Information Technology Department, said Milestone’s relationships with cell companies could make it easier for the Virginia-based tower management company to lease Buncombe-owned towers to service providers and increase revenue for the county.
If the proposed five-year contract is approved at the Sept. 19 meeting, Milestone would share revenue from the county’s 17 tower sites and any new sites built by Milestone on county land.
For existing county contracts, Milestone will take over management and 10% of the revenue, leaving the rest for Buncombe County. For new contracts on existing towers, it will take 25%, and for new towers it builds and maintains on county land, it will take 60% of the revenue. The county will not pay Milestone anything upfront.
Bell said this could lead to an expansion of fiber optic service in rural areas and improved cell reception at many locations across the county.
Commissioner Parker Sloan said that when he returns from travel, he always notices the “uniquely bad cell reception” in Buncombe County, which Bell said he hopes will improve with this contract.
County commissioners also heard an update on rising hospitalizations related to COVID-19 from Buncombe County Health Director Ellis Matheson.
According to Matheson, hospitalizations have been increasing statewide since July. The amount of COVID-19 virus particles found in wastewater systems statewide has been rising each week since June.