CIBO hears homelessness strategy critiques

TALKING BUSINESS: A panel featuring Micheal Woods, executive director of Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, left; Rick Freeman, president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, center; and Scott Rogers, executive director of Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, spoke about homelessness at the Council of Independent Business Owners' April 5 meeting. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

Local government’s previous approaches to addressing homelessness have been largely ineffectual, according to a panel of speakers at the April 5 Council of Independent Business Owners meeting. CIBO is a membership of local business owners and hosts monthly speakers.

Micheal Woods, executive director of Western Carolina Rescue Ministries; Rick Freeman, president of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods; and Scott Rogers, executive director of Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, shared concerns about shelters, harm reduction strategies and the continuum of care  (a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program that guides how a community addresses homelessness) at a breakfast gathering of about 50 guests at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center.

‘Capacity and competency’

In 2022, Dogwood Health Trust hired Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness to develop a report about reducing homelessness in the city and Buncombe County. The report is available at

Among many suggestions in its January 2023 report, NAEH recommended opening a low-barrier shelter, also called a high-access shelter, as a key strategy to halving the homeless population in Asheville by 2025. City and county staff are researching how to implement a low-barrier shelter that would serve groups that aren’t served by existing shelter options, such as people with pets or mothers with sons over the age of 13.

However, Woods questioned whether the community really needs additional shelter beds. “Our problem right now isn’t a capacity issue, per se,” he told the audience. “If there were 300 more shelter beds available, you’re still going to have people who are not going to access shelter.”

While the number of people seeking access to shelter on any given night varies, Asheville’s annual 2023 Point-in-Time Count found 573 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people. The 2024 Point-in-Time Count was conducted in January, and results will be released this spring. The NAEH report recommended providing an additional 95 shelter beds in the community, in addition to increasing affordable housing options for people.

Some people may be afraid or unwilling to stay in a shelter due to experiencing mental distress, Woods said. But others “are choosing not to be there because there are rules.” Shelters like those at WCRM and ABCCM have curfews, require sobriety and encourage clients to participate in ministry services. Typically in low-barrier shelters, sobriety is not required to access a bed. However, weapons and drug or alcohol usage are prohibited on-site.

Rogers implored the community to support existing organizations like his, which he argues have the skill set and capacity to address homelessness, mental health and substance use. He discussed ABCCM’s support programs, such as Costello House, a recovery living ministry for civilian men, and Veterans Restoration Quarters, which serves veterans. “If your capacity and competency don’t match up, things go south and sideways very, very quickly,” he said, adding the community needs to “support programs that have outcomes that are demonstrating what a difference that they’re making.”

Rogers also referred to criminal behavior. “Another lesson we’ve learned over my almost 40 years of doing this is that if you support lawlessness, what will follow is the fruit of organized lawlessness,” he said. “There has to be safety and healthy boundaries for everybody so that everybody thrives.” He spoke approvingly of the community paramedics’ co-responder partnership between the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services, which sends law enforcement alongside a trained mental health clinician for certain calls. Rogers said the community “can work with law enforcement with intentional outreach and with finding solutions for [homeless] folks that work.”

Lastly, Rogers told the audience, “We need to ask the city and the county leaders to identify how much money they’re going to actually put into the solution.”

Harm reduction

During the panel, Woods said he is “against some of the harm reduction policies that have been adopted here in Buncombe County.” Woods was referring to the county’s needle exchange program and distribution of naloxone, which reverses overdoses.

The county Department of Health and Human Services and the nonprofit Western North Carolina AIDS Project operate syringe exchanges and supply naloxone at 40 Coxe Ave. and 554 Fairview Road, respectively. The nonprofit Steady Collective also offers syringe exchange and naloxone at various locations during the week.

“The thought process is that if they’re using clean needles, they’re not going to catch hepatitis C, and they’re not going to catch HIV,” Woods explained. “But it’s OK for them to overdose. I have issues with a community that enables people by giving them needles and Narcan [a brand name for naloxone]. Let’s deal with the issue. Let’s help people; let’s not OK it.”

Buncombe County had 151 deaths from drug overdose in 2022.

Both hepatitis C, which impacts the liver, and HIV are viruses that spread through blood and can be transmitted by sharing needles used for injectable drugs. According to the NCDHHS Opioid and Substance Use Action Plan Data Dashboard, Buncombe County diagnosed nine new acute hepatitis C infections in 2020, the latest data available. The NCDHHS dashboard removed naloxone reversals from its dataset in May, stating it is “evaluating” the quality of these measures.

Woods described how WCRM residents will roll a magnetic sweeper around the shelter property “just to pick up needles.” He said, “We can’t be OK with that. That’s being OK with people being in body bags.”

In an emailed statement in response to Woods’ comments, BCDHHS spokesperson Stacey Wood wrote that harm reduction strategies “are part of a broader approach that includes prevention, treatment and recovery services. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown that people who frequent harm reduction programs are about three times more likely to stop using drugs than those who don’t use the programs.

“By prioritizing people-centered services and adopting a multifaceted approach, we can decrease overdose fatalities, life-threatening infections, and costly chronic diseases associated with drug use.”

‘It’s not going to be fun’

While Woods and Rogers work day to day on homelessness, Freeman sees it from a layman’s perspective. He got involved with the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, an advocacy group for Asheville’s neighborhoods, “to get some help on topics that are very important to my neighborhood,” he explained. Compass Point Village, the permanent supportive housing developed by Homeward Bound in a former Days Inn, “is more or less a neighbor of me,” he said.

Freeman became CAN’s president and was appointed to the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee, which manages the continuum of care. (A community has to have a CoC to receive federal funding to address homelessness.) From HIAC, “I could see that we weren’t really collaborating … we weren’t hearing from Micheal [Woods], we weren’t hearing from Scott [Rogers],” he explained. “We had a very narrow agenda.”

Freeman suggested CIBO members become involved in addressing homelessness. “It’s not going to be fun to point out how historically some things haven’t worked out so great and they have bad impact on business and the residents,” he said. “But they have to hear that [in the government]. You have to build relationships between the business community, public safety, medical care, behavioral health care and the great providers that are already doing an excellent job.”

He added, “And we have to make it work together in order to make improvements that you all are going to see.”


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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