It’s working, but …

What works? Panelists who have struggled with homelessness in the past discussed what services were most helpful in getting them off of the streets. photo by Jerry Nelson

Local agencies are making progress in implementing the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, but they need more resources and support. That was the principal message that emerged from the 2011 Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Summit, held March 25 at the Masonic Temple in downtown Asheville.

More than 50 representatives of agencies such as Homeward Bound and the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry gathered to take stock of the local homeless situation and brainstorm on where we go from here.

Robin Merrell, who serves on the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee board, stressed that since the plan's adoption in 2005, it's had a significant impact. The last point-in-time count, in January 2011, pegged the city's homeless population at 498, compared with 518 in 2010 and 689 in 2004. Of those 498 people, 126 were deemed "chronically homeless" — 61 fewer than last year.

Despite the tough economic times, Merrell and others credit much of the improvement to the "housing first" model, which immediately places homeless folks in housing, without preconditions such as finding a job or getting treatment for addiction.

Success story

Patricia Whitmore, who lived on the streets of Asheville for 14 years, says the initiative saved her life.

After doing prison time for selling drugs, Whitmore landed at Homeward Bound's Room in the Inn program, which functions as a mobile crisis shelter for women. Over a 10-month period, Whitmore received food and shelter, plus a referral to substance-abuse treatment services.

"It was a home away from home," says Whitmore, noting how quickly the nonprofit helps people find homes. Off drugs for 16 months now, Whitmore adds that the most helpful thing about the service was its requirement to "be in at night." Without that, "I probably would've been out there doing the same thing, drugging or in jail," she admits.

Just three weeks ago, Whitmore's support team helped her move into more permanent digs, and they're helping her seek Social Security disability status. She says she was seriously injured in a car wreck in 1989 but never sought support until now.

"There's help out there for us," says Whitmore. "I was homeless for 14 years; you just have to open the doors. If you don't know where it is, ask questions. I ask a whole lot of questions."

More resources needed

Merrell, however, worries that in this tough economic climate, the money available to help people like Whitmore is drying up.

Over lunch, summit leaders debated ways to gain more support and resources. Brian Alexander, executive director of Homeward Bound, pitched better marketing.

"We know what works: Things are working. If we had enough resources in our community, we could end homelessness right now," he argued. "Whether or not we can do that is dependent on if we get the word out to the community. … In order to maximize what we can do with the 10-year plan, we're going to have to educate the wider public about what we're doing … so we can build the kind of resources that we need."

But marketing the plan, responded Dwight Butner of the Asheville Downtown Association, needs to speak to people’s pocketbooks. More clearly defining the difference between homelessness and vagrancy, he maintained, would also help win more support.

"Everyone at this table is devoted to this plan. But if you go talk to people who are not, some of them are sitting there wondering why their tax dollars are going to pay to support someone who, in their view, is an indigent drunk," Butner explained. "You have to say, 'Unless we want indigents laying all over the community and dying under bridges, we need to do this — and it saves us this much money.'"

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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