Asheville City Council

In place of its customary Tuesday-night meeting, the Asheville City Council invited the public to a May 29 brainstorming session on how to combat—or at least accommodate—homelessness in the city. Upward of 95 people showed up at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Asheville. Many were advocates for the homeless, but the crowd also included downtown merchants, residents and others who for various reasons confront the issue daily.

The face of homelessness: Twenty-twom onth-old Gavyn Jones, with his father Stephen and friend Jazz, is just one of many who call the streets of Asheville home. photos by Jonathan Welch

The format was similar to that used for a February forum on the future of Bele Chere, which resulted in changes to the popular summer festival (see “Residents Weigh in on Bele Chere’s Future,” Feb. 7 Xpress). Assigned to one of five focus groups, participants considered two questions: What support services are needed in our community to help people who experience homelessness or are at risk of becoming homeless? What type of community programming would you like to see in Pritchard Park? (The public space at the confluence of Patton Avenue and College Street has become a haven for homeless people.)

Responding to the first question, one woman suggested that the city needs more case managers trained “to jump through the hoops” so homeless residents can get the help they need. Luke Bigelow of the Asheville Police Department agreed, adding that the police need to know who those case managers are so they can work together more effectively. Several people said the city and other authorities should do more to provide access to medical, dental and mental-health services and should establish more day centers for the homeless. The A Hope Center on North Ann Street, for example, can serve 200 people a day but only 50 per hour because of fire regulations.

Others cited the need for more jobs that pay a living wage and more affordable housing—as well as a willingness among landlords to relax their rules on such things as credit and criminal histories for people living on the streets.

“Affordable housing is disappearing,” one woman declared. “We have problems here that are continuing to [grow],” thanks to ongoing neighborhood gentrification and the popular local practice of “flipping” houses, which helps drive up prices.

As for Pritchard Park and the central business district, many participants said simple amenities such as public restrooms, water fountains and shower-and-laundry facilities would make life easier for the homeless while making them less of a nuisance to downtown merchants, residents, visitors and workers.

A few speakers maintained that many problems could be eased simply by creating ways for homeless people and the community at large to come together. The Rev. Amy Cantrell, a staunch advocate for the homeless who serves on the city’s Pritchard Park Committee, felt that sharing a meal together in the park could build community, helping break down social barriers while enhancing relationships (or at least understanding) between the housed and the homeless. “I think it’s really important that we do that,” she said.

Others proposed posting “ambassadors” in Pritchard Park who could provide information and help monitor the park. Similarly, several participants suggested establishing an “adopt-the-park” program that would enlist businesses and civic organizations to help maintain and police the area.

City staff will now compile and prioritize the feedback; the top ideas will be presented to Council at its July 10 meeting, said Community Relations Director Lauren Bradley. City residents who didn’t make it to the meeting can e-mail their suggestions concerning homelessness to city staffer Nick Dula ( by Monday, June 11, said Bradley.

Trimming the rolls

Looking for solutions: City Council member Robin Cape (center) and homeless advocate Mark Maloy try to tackle the city’s homeless problem at the May 29 public forum.

Although homelessness remains a persistent problem in and around Asheville, the city’s ambitious “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” approved by Council in 2005, is making strides, said coordinator Amy Sawyer. In a speech at the beginning of the public forum, Sawyer said there were 169 chronically homeless people in Asheville/Buncombe as of January 2006. By this January, she said, there were 105 such people—a 38 percent decrease.

The chronically homeless account for only about 20 percent of the local homeless population, but they use roughly 80 percent of resources, Sawyer explained.

“By addressing chronic homelessness, we strengthen the homeless service system and free up resources to aid people who are at risk of homelessness, preventing more people from becoming chronically homeless,” she said. “Our last … count showed that our work is making a difference.”

The linchpin of the city’s homelessness initiative—providing permanent housing promptly—is the chief reason the number of chronically homeless is down, she noted. Most of those residents are housed in the Woodfin and Griffin apartment complexes.

“We now have 130 permanent, supportive housing units,” said Sawyer. “We know that it costs the community about $22,000 a year to pay for the jail, hospital, EMS and emergency shelter services that a person experiencing homelessness uses. We also know it costs less to pay for permanent, supportive housing for these same people. A UNC-Chapel Hill research project currently being conducted with tenants at the most recent permanent, supportive housing project will help us evaluate the exact costs of permanent, supportive housing, which are estimated to be thousands of dollars less than what it costs to keep someone on the streets,” she explained.

The plan also emphasizes reaching out to the homeless to help them find the support services they need, especially people with mental-health and substance-abuse problems. This, said Sawyer, is making it possible for those people to receive the care they need rather than being jailed.

A new program, called SOAR, will also help such efforts, she reported. “This program uses research-based methods to help people access Social Security disability support within months instead of years,” she said. “This will prevent people from losing housing if they are unable to work due to a disability. It will also help people access Medicaid dollars sooner that can help pay for treatment and services needed to maintain their health. This project is in the initial phases—35 support workers and advocates have been trained in SOAR methods. We need to train more support workers and clinicians. We also need to get some jobs dedicated to identifying SOAR clients and getting them processed.”

To drive home her comments on the city’s program, Sawyer closed with a story:

“I knew a man who had become homeless and struggled with a physical problem. He’d suffered for years, finding dead ends each time he attempted to get himself out of homelessness. When I first met him, about a year ago, he felt hopeless. He was clear with me—he was not helpless, but the wear and tear of not having a regular place to sleep was beginning to have an effect on him. Sleeping in the shelters or outside was causing his health problems to flare to dangerous levels. I asked him what he wanted, and he said, ‘A place to live.’ Everything else, he said, would follow. Flash-forward to today: This person now lives in permanent, supportive housing. He has a door that he can close behind him, a place that provides safety, consistency, and freedom from the trials of the streets.

“The day he came by my office holding the key to his new apartment was a true day of celebration,” she continued. “He was proud, excited and, yes, a little scared. But with the help of the support at the apartments, he moved in, got situated and began to treat his health problems that, up to that point, were putting his life at risk because he couldn’t get the consistent treatment he needed. He’s joined in on some of the community gatherings in his building, and beams when he tells me that he’s got clothes that stay clean now because there is a closet to hang them in. He now wants to help other people who are experiencing homelessness. He is confident, proud and hopeful. I am overjoyed to be able to share this story with you: Because of the efforts of the homeless initiative, the support from Council and many others, we have been able to see such successes. But we must not stop now—we need to keep the momentum going. We need to see this story repeated for each and every person in our community who has no place to live.”


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