Asheville City Council

A plan to get homeless people off the streets and into housing — with no strings attached — got the green light from City Council at its Jan. 11 formal session.

Based on a “housing first” model developed and promoted by national nonprofits dealing with the homeless, the local plan is part of a federal initiative for ending homelessness in America within 10 years. The plan now awaits approval by the Buncombe County commissioners (at press time, they were planning to vote on it at their Jan. 18 meeting). If the county approves the joint resolution, the next step will be to form a group — most likely a nonprofit — to oversee the housing program.

After hearing a presentation last April by Executive Director Philip Mangano of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, Asheville’s Downtown Social Issues Task Force appointed a steering committee to explore options for the local program. That 33-member body unanimously supports the housing-first initiative, committee chair Jerome Jones told Council members during the formal session.

What makes the initiative controversial is that, unlike other programs that require participants to seek employment or treatment for substance abuse, housing first starts by finding people homes before attempting to address other aspects of the problem.

But that’s only one key component of a five-pronged approach, Jones explained. After establishing a lead entity, other steps include developing infrastructure to track those in the program, targeting people at high risk of homelessness (such as those leaving prisons or mental-health facilities), and coordinating complementary support services (such as treatment programs) once clients are off the streets.

The whole thing seemed daunting to Council member Joe Dunn, who wondered aloud: “It’s such a complex plan — it has five prongs. How many prongs does it have to have?”

Another key concern among some Council members was that both the actual cost of the program and possible funding options remain vague. And meanwhile, it’s already becoming apparent, noted Jones, that the city will have to shoulder some costs, such as an estimated $45,000 to create a supervisory agency and $20,000 for infrastructure used to keep records and track the homeless.

But Jones cites the success rates of cities that have tried the approach as reason enough to give it a shot. And though he says he’s confident that federal funding will be available in the form of grants, Jones advised Council members (as he has throughout the plan’s development) not to get hung up on the cost at this point. Some money now spent on hospitals, courts and other social services, he maintained, would be freed up as homeless folks moved into housing. Together, Asheville and Buncombe County now spend almost $2 million a year on services for the homeless, noted Jones, a former assistant county manager.

Meanwhile, even though Jones has said he hopes to see the number of local homeless people halved by 2008, he also urged patience. “It’s a 10-year plan — it’s going to take awhile before we see it work,” he said.

Dunn, however, remained unconvinced.

“You vote against this, you get labeled as the guy who doesn’t care,” he said, adding, “My job is to question it: You gotta have more than just hope.”

Mayor Charles Worley, on the other hand, voiced support for the plan, noting that the methods it advocates have been proven in other communities.

And Council member Holly Jones (no relation to Jerome Jones) made no bones about where her sympathies lay, proclaiming, “The worst thing we can do is not adopt this.”

But Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower also expressed grave doubts about the plan. Emphasizing that as a psychologist he has some expertise in this area, Mumpower argued that the program’s failure to require drug treatment is a major problem.

“These people are controlled by their addictions,” he said, adding, “There’s no way housing is the key to their addictions.” Mumpower also described hard-core addicts as “predatory.”

The vice mayor even went so far as to challenge the statistics cited by Jerome Jones, asserting that they had been “idealized” to demonstrate success.

Jones, however, stood by his numbers. “We would have not used the data if we did not think they were accurate,” Jones told Xpress after the meeting.

Holly Jones, meanwhile, tried to keep Council’s attention focused on the purpose of the housing first program. “This is not a plan to treat substance abuse — this is a plan to get homeless people off the street,” she said. And later in the discussion, she added, “Those people who are using our systems now, they’re not getting fixed.”

When it came time to vote, the measure was approved 5-2, with Dunn and Mumpower opposed.

The high road

A major retooling of a portion of College Street will drastically change the face of this key downtown thoroughfare, city Traffic Engineer Anthony Butzek told Council. The work, which will affect a quarter-mile stretch of road between Spruce and Charlotte streets bordering Pack Square, will include reconfiguring lanes and adding a roundabout. Construction will begin immediately and will last into the summer, he said.

Butzek first brought the project before Council last April, when he pitched it as a way to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety while decreasing the actual speed of vehicles traveling a stretch of road that serves as the eastern gateway to downtown and provides access to city and county government buildings.

Butzek’s Jan. 11 presentation was almost identical to his original one and touted the same advantages for the project, which is expected to reduce travel time through the area in question by 10-15 seconds.

The design will slim College Street from two lanes in each direction to one, with a median between. It also calls for bike lanes and improved crosswalks. Butzek said the new design conforms to the city’s 2025 Plan, and Carol King of the Pack Square Conservancy endorsed it as consistent with the upcoming revamp of the square, slated to begin this summer.

The roundabout will replace the traffic signal at the intersection of College, Oak and Valley streets. Roundabouts, which are common in parts of Europe, are used to keep traffic flowing while allowing cars to navigate intersections. A similar one on W.T. Weaver Boulevard at the entrance to UNCA handles about 1,200 vehicles during its peak hour daily. The College Street roundabout will handle about 1,400 vehicles during its peak hour (about 13,000 vehicles travel that stretch of road daily). Construction began Jan. 18, and one lane of College Street has been closed. Details about the project can be accessed on the city’s Web site (www.ci.asheville.nc.us).

The road was already scheduled for an $85,000 resurfacing last year, Butzek explained. So city staff decided it was a good time to move forward with the new design, which is expected to cost $100,000. But that $185,000 is still less than the $200,000 Butzek said it would take to install pedestrian signals in the current configuration. In the past, he has noted that the present crosswalk system is so unsafe as to require the assistance of crossing guards supplied by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department. All the money comes from pedestrian-safety funds already in the budget.

The new design is not without its foes, however. Both Vice Mayor Mumpower and Council member Dunn voiced misgivings about the changes.

“This has the potential to be a nice thing, but it has the potential to be something else,” said Mumpower. “We are restricting traffic; I have apprehensions about those restrictions.” In the April meeting, both men expressed doubts about the safety and efficiency of a roundabout on College, a position they reiterated in January.

“I heard you say that you want Asheville to be pedestrian-safe, but now you say pedestrians have to look out,” noted Dunn, arguing that the roundabout conflicts with efforts to make downtown streets safer for foot traffic.

Butzek, however, said he’s never heard of a pedestrian fatality at a roundabout, though cars do yield rather than stop as they would at a signal. And City Manager Jim Westbrook emphasized that the merits of the project are based not on speculation but on hard facts.

“This is not an experiment,” he declared. “This is based on sound information. It will work.”

Council members took no action on the matter. City Engineer Cathy Ball explained later that such projects are typically left up to staff, though if City Council has strong concerns, it can request changes.

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]

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