Code Purple will have nearly 100 beds available for emergency overnight shelter for Asheville’s unhoused population when the temperature is freezing or below. The program will also operate for two additional months in the winter and spring of 2022-23.
At an Oct. 4 meeting of the Asheville-Buncombe County Homeless Coalition, Kevin Mahoney, the coalition’s co-chair and a peer support specialist at Mountain Area Health Education Center, gave an update on this year’s plans.
Code Purple will run from Oct. 15 to April 15. On Code Purple nights, 95 beds will become available at the shelters run by Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, says Emily Ball of Asheville’s Department of Community and Economic Development.
At ABCCM, Veterans Restoration Quarters will provide 50 beds for men, and Transformation Village will provide 45 beds for single women and women with children, says VRQ director Tim McElyea. He says guests will be required to take a breathalyzer test for entry during Code Purple. People who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he says, will be allowed to sit in an area and sober up while being checked periodically.
Advance planning should help Code Purple — a collaboration with a network of city, county and nonprofit services — run smoothly. Over the years the program has experienced some problems.
Ball explains that Code Purple had 78 beds available for winter and spring 2021-22. Only one night during a big snowstorm was every bed in use, she adds.
Ball anticipates overflow space won’t be needed given the increased number of beds this year. However, faith communities may step up with options such as renting a hotel room for an unhoused family if it becomes necessary, she explains.
Official counts indicate that homelessness is on the rise in Asheville. The latest point-in-time count, presented to the City Council in May, identified 637 individuals who were unsheltered. (PIT counts are conducted each January, and data are released in the spring.) This figure was a 21% increase from the 527 homeless individuals recorded in 2021. However, those who work with unhoused populations, people who misuse substances or people who are mentally ill say many of them are not counted.
Code Purple has been a program in Asheville since the late 2000s, but COVID complicated operations in 2020. That year “we didn’t have any shelter providers who felt like they were able to participate because of concerns about exposure for their ongoing shelter participants,” explains Ball. After an initial scramble, First Congregational United Church of Christ of Asheville stepped up to provide Code Purple shelter.
During 2021, the scramble returned when freezing temperatures started in November. The Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Coalition called Code Purple 16 times in November. But the Code Purple programs at the city’s two Code Purple shelters (Salvation Army and Costello House at ABCCM) weren’t prepared with beds and staff until Dec. 1, which was the official start of the Code Purple program.
Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services community paramedic Justin Pritchard recalls a night in November 2021 when he worked his second shift as a member of BCEMS’ post-overdose response team, or PORT. During that shift, a firefighter he knew reached out regarding a man — a veteran — who was outdoors in the cold. The firefighter had called 211 inquiring about the availability of a shelter bed without success.
Pritchard made his own round of phone calls trying to find a place for the man to spend the night. “I stood there and watched him get himself up on all fours, and he crawled over and he laid on the exhaust on the firetruck, because he was so cold,” recalls Pritchard. “And that s*** just broke my heart,” he says, adding “some of my best friends over the years have been vets.”
Finally Pritchard called the emergency room at the Charles George VA Medical Center. “The nurse who answered knew me, thank goodness,” he explains. “And the VA [medical center] cleared a room they weren’t using and put him up into a room that night.”
In response to situations like these, volunteers at Trinity United Methodist Church began operating a volunteer-run shelter on nights Code Purple was called. The shelter at the church continued to stay open throughout the winter and provided beds for those other shelters could not support, like homeless people with pets, families and couples. (Shelters are separated by gender, meaning a husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend cannot be together.)
But 2022 should be different. The city’s Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee convened a workgroup of previous Code Purple providers, BCEMS, Capt. Mike Lamb from Asheville Police Department, Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, Mission Hospital and the nonprofit BeLoved Asheville, among others. The workgroup held four meetings to “hash through all of the operational details and get everybody on the same page,” explains Ball.
Of particular focus was coordinating transportation from Mission Hospital for unhoused individuals who have experienced health emergencies, she says.
Another change with the Code Purple program this year is $100,000 in funding. “For the first time, the city has budgeted funding for Code Purple, as did the county,” says Ball. (Asheville City Council included funds for Code Purple sheltering in the fiscal year 2023 budget.)
Getting to a shelter
Mike DeSerio, outreach program manager at Homeward Bound of WNC, says information on nights when Code Purple is called will be posted on a bulletin board at AHOPE Day Center, a place where people experiencing homelessness can shower and store belongings. Ball says Code Purple nights will also be announced on the marquee outside Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville.
McElyea from ABCCM notes that Asheville Rides Transit will be free on Code Purple nights. His organization also has vans that can drive around town and actively look for people who are unhoused.
If individuals decline an offer for shelter for the night, McElyea says ABCCM will hand out blankets, coats, socks and hygiene kits, along with a list of resources for the unhoused. DeSerio says Homeward Bound will also hand out heavy-duty sleeping bags. BeLoved Asheville provides donations of clothes, sleeping bags and food as well.
Yet despite the developments and growth of coordination efforts, there’s more work to do. Robertson, for example, notes that there isn’t a sheltering option for teens and tweens since Trinity Place: Runaway & Homeless Youth Shelter closed in the spring.
Ball sees providing housing and shelter for the unhoused as a dynamic and ever-evolving project, and it’s one she truly believes in.
“It is our job as a community to continue to build out the types of services that people need and that we’ll meet the needs of the people who are homeless in our community,” explains Ball. “That will always be our work because the need will always be evolving. We want a homeless services system that is highly responsive to the need at all times, and that can evolve as the need evolves.”
UPDATE: Wednesday, Oct.19, 2022, 9:30 a.m.: This article has been updated to reflect the Salvation Army of Asheville and Buncombe County did not participate when Code Purple went into effect for Oct. 17-19.
UPDATE: Wednesday, Oct.19, 2022, 1:30 p.m.: Major Kenneth Clewis, the Salvation Army, Asheville NC Corps, shared a statement with Xpress:
“Daily, The Salvation Army provides a critical service to our homeless population through our Center of Hope shelter. Unfortunately, the staffing shortage that is affecting many businesses is affecting The Salvation Army’s capacity to participate in the Code Purple program. In addition to the staff we provide as monitors and intake coordinators, we have to provide adequate security to ensure the safety of all who enter our doors. Each person that comes into the Code Purple program must be checked for weapons and drugs before we can allow them entrance into our building. We are working with a security staffing company to meet our staffing needs, but they, like us, are not able to get enough trained security staff to fill the demands. Code Purple is vital program for our most vulnerable population, and we are working to overcome the staffing challenges that are currently preventing our participation. When we do, the 16 beds at The Salvation Army will be available.”