Local government leaders, business owners and nonprofit heads alike have raised concerns about a perceived increase in homelessness over the past year. The results of the latest point-in-time count, presented to Asheville City Council May 10, have finally provided some data to inform that conversation.
As explained by Emily Ball, the city’s homeless services lead, the comprehensive annual count is meant to record every Buncombe County resident sleeping on the streets, at a shelter or in transitional housing on a single night. Data comes from shelter facilities, homelessness service agencies, school systems and street teams directly engaging with unsheltered people across the county. Because the count is always conducted during the last 10 days of January, its results offer the most consistent benchmark available for community homelessness.
In 2022, that figure was 637 individuals, representing a nearly 21% increase over the 527 recorded in 2021. The number of unsheltered residents, whose homelessness is the most visible to the community, was 232 — double the 2021 count of 116. (Ball suggested the true number was even higher, noting the difficulty of counting everyone who sleeps outside.)
Over the same period, Buncombe’s shelter capacity decreased by 74 beds, from 634 to 560. But 155 of those beds weren’t being used on the night of the count, including 55 traditional shelter spaces, 69 transitional housing slots and 31 spaces in Code Purple emergency winter shelters.
A new survey of unsheltered residents conducted alongside the PIT count offered some insights into why those beds were going unoccupied. The top reason for avoiding shelters cited by respondents was “restrictive rules,” followed by anxiety about overcrowding and worries about shelter safety.
As previously reported by Xpress (see “Come as you are,” June 16, 2021, avl.mx/bkt), the Asheville-based nonprofit ANCHOR has proposed that a low-barrier shelter would address some of those concerns. However, a city-led effort to establish such a shelter at an East Asheville Ramada Inn fell apart last year over neighborhood opposition and a lack of support from potential funding partners.
Another question on the survey asked where unsheltered people last had housing. Of 166 respondents, nearly 58% said they had become homeless in Asheville; about 18% said they’d come from elsewhere in the state, while roughly 24% said they’d come from outside North Carolina.
Council member Antanette Mosley asked Ball if that out-of-state number was unusually high. Because the city had only started collecting that information this year, Ball responded, it was premature to make such a conclusion, especially given the lack of comparable federal data.
“I do think the pandemic has just really changed everything, and we do know, certainly, homeless folks are mobile, are moving to where they can get their needs met and moving for other reasons,” Ball continued. “I would posit that we might have 24% of the general population of Buncombe County who is here from another state.”
During the same meeting at which the PIT and survey results were presented, Council accepted a grant of nearly $73,000 from the Dogwood Health Trust to fund a consulting contract with the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Ball said the Washington, D.C.-based organization would help the city more deeply analyze the data “to better understand implications and opportunities.”
The full report to Council on homelessness issues is available at avl.mx/bkx.
In other news
The meeting’s only contested votes came as Council considered a grant to the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville to subsidize 82 affordable units at the Deaverview Apartments in West Asheville. Although city staff had recommended a $1.2 million grant, Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith moved to increase that amount to $1.465 million. The larger grant was approved 5-2, with Sage Turner and Gwen Wisler opposed.
HACA had also requested $1.2 million from Buncombe County but received just over $935,000; Turner noted that the county plans to further subsidize the project by deferring certain development fees. But HACA Executive Director David Nash said having more guaranteed cash on hand from grants would help his organization compete for federal low-income housing tax credits.
“I am very supportive of the project. I am just incredibly frustrated that the city continues to be asked [to make] up for our community partners out there that are not willing to share with us,” Wisler said. “We’re always the first person that everyone comes to, because apparently people think we just are flush with money, when in fact that’s not the case.”
Funding for the HACA grant came from a $7.4 million pool of affordable housing bond proceeds left from the $25 million in borrowing approved by Asheville voters in 2016.