Asheville City Council

At any given time, there are an estimated 2,000 homeless people in Buncombe County.

An ambitious plan to drastically reduce homelessness in Asheville was greeted with a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism at City Council’s Dec. 7 work session.

“This is a fairly radical departure from the way you treat homeless now,” noted Jerome Jones, who heads up the joint city/county task force that drafted the 10-year plan. The local initiative was launched in response to an April presentation by the executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness calling on cities nationwide to come up with such plans, based on a national model.

The core of the plan, said Jones, is the concept of “housing first” — i.e., immediately placing homeless people in permanent housing, rather than tying such placement to participants’ commitment to entering a drug-rehabilitation program, seeking mental-health treatment or finding employment.

“There are no preconceived hurdles you have to achieve,” Jones explained. “We are just trying to get the person into permanent housing.”

Jones mentioned two local facilities — the Woodfin Apartments and the Griffin Apartments — that could provide the needed housing. The Woodfin complex at the corner of Woodfin and North Market streets, recently rehabilitated by the Asheville Housing Authority, is already designated for housing homeless people with mental disabilities, so it would mesh well with the proposal, said Robin Merrell of Pisgah Legal Services, who provides technical assistance to the task force. The Griffin complex on Grove Street, now being developed by Mountain Housing Opportunities, will have 15 apartments designated for the homeless when it’s completed next year.

Jones, however, emphasized that the housing-first initiative would be only one component of a multipronged approach. The program would also involve proactively taking steps to prevent homelessness, especially with people discharged from the prison system or mental-health facilities. Support systems for job placement and treatment programs also need to be in place, he said. And an organization would be created to oversee all the elements in the program and maintain a database.

At this point, the financial details remain vague. Housing costs would be supplemented, depending on a resident’s ability to pay, Jones explained; his report estimates the cost of housing a single person at around $10,000 a year. But overall, he preferred not to get into the specifics of funding options and requirements, noting only that grants as well as federal and state money are available and will need to be explored.

“We don’t know yet what the costs are going to be,” said Jones. And in any case, the city needs to show support for the programs before funding can be secured.

Two initiatives now being considered by Congress — the Samaritan Act and the Services to End Long-Term Homelessness Act — could supply some of the needed money for programs like this, noted Merrell. The federal effort grew out of President Bush’s reformation of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and call for a nationwide initiative to end homelessness. And in North Carolina, said Merrell, the General Assembly is considering allocating $50 million annually to initiatives to help the homeless.

But Jones chose to emphasize the success of housing-first programs nationwide. After five years, he said, 90 percent of program participants remain in their homes. The Asheville plan hopes to cut the number of chronic local homeless in half by 2008.

At any given time, there are an estimated 2,000 homeless people in Buncombe County, noted Jones, and thousands more are living in overcrowded housing. Most of them are temporarily homeless, said Jones, but 300 or so are considered chronic cases. Of those, a mere 37 people account for about $839,000 a year in local spending on shelter, police and court costs, and medical care, he reported.

And despite these individuals’ histories of drug use and unemployment, Jones maintained that if they’re placed in housing of their own, they will eventually seek out rehabilitation and jobs.

“If you stop the bleeding, then the other stuff can begin,” he declared. “Inevitably, a person will begin asking for these services.”

Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower agreed that most homeless people are good targets for such aid. But he was skeptical about how effective the housing-first approach would be in dealing with the 37 cases cited.

“These are some hard-core gentlemen,” Mumpower observed. “The trump card is the level of pathology with these folks; they are deeply addicted.”

Council member Jan Davis agreed, calling some of the target group “pretty much incorrigible.”

Mumpower also raised another concern. Asheville, he said, is a relatively homeless-friendly city, and if those people were given permanent homes, 37 others might show up to take their place. Council member Joe Dunn, too, worried that the system might become “overwhelmed.”

Jones, however, countered that even though Asheville does attract homeless people, the nationwide effort aims to head off that trend by making sure that comparable services are also provided in other places. Similar plans are now being considered in Durham, Raleigh and Winston-Salem, as well as other Southeastern cities, he said.

Council member Holly Jones (no relation to Jerome Jones) expressed support for the idea. “I see it from a utilitarian perspective,” she said. “We can sit around all day and tell people what should happen; it does not work.”

As homeless people obtain housing and get back on their feet, she argued, they require fewer resources from other programs. That money can then be redirected to helping others, providing a funding stream for the local program. Add in the apartments already or soon to be available, and “We are ahead of the game,” she declared. “We are poised to get some of this early money.”

The 10-year plan will come back to Council for final approval at its Jan. 11 formal session.

Going up … and up

The rapidly increasing cost of a mixed-use downtown project including a five-level, 650-car parking deck as well as retail and office space raised some eyebrows — and questions — among Council members. The project, to be located off Haywood Street near the Civic Center and the Basilica of St. Lawrence, has already been in the works for more than five years; problems with property acquisition contributed to the delay. But a budget amendment bumping up the total allocation to $20.8 million stopped Council dead in its tracks.

Just last year, the project had been estimated to cost $15.2 million. More recently, that figure had climbed to $18 million. “Every year as we reported the process, we knew the costs were going up,” City Engineer Cathy Ball told Council, blaming the increases on the rising costs of steel and oil.

But the last time the budget for the project was formally amended was in fiscal year 1999-2000, when it carried an $11.8 million price tag. Thus, the current amendment called for adding a whopping $9 million all at once. Ball did assure Council that the $20.8 million estimate was weighted toward the high end, to make sure it doesn’t fall short.

Nonetheless, Council members sounded incredulous about the cost.

“I can’t conceive of us spending $20 million,” Mumpower proclaimed. And in the course of a nearly two-hour discussion, Council walked the project all the way back to its inception, questioning the location, design, number of spaces — and even the need for it.

“If we decided we didn’t want a $20 million parking garage, is there a plan B?” Mumpower asked ominously.

Such a decision, said Ball, would take the project back to square one — effectively negating all the money and effort expended to date. She also cautioned that there’s no telling what could happen to construction costs if the project were delayed any further, such as by rethinking the design.

Apologizing for what she called “Monday-morning quarterbacking,” Holly Jones asked, “Could there be another place that could be a cheaper place?”

But Ball said a parking study done six years ago had identified this site as the best.

“There’s really no other place in that area where we can do the things we want to do,” City Manager Jim Westbrook chimed in.

Council member Brownie Newman, meanwhile, questioned the need for such a large parking deck, noting that it was first proposed at a time when the city was anticipating building a new civic center and planning for the reopening of the long-dormant Grove Arcade. But the civic center is still on hold, and the Grove Arcade hasn’t generated as much traffic as expected.

“Is there any way to modify the current plan?” wondered Newman.

Jan Davis, however, voiced support for the project, saying: “To me, it seems like we can’t afford not to do this. I don’t know if we will get back to this point again.”

And despite Council’s misgivings, Ball, Westbrook and city Finance Director Bill Schaefer (who was in his last day on the job) all staunchly defended both the financial viability of the project and the need to move forward.

“We need approval or disapproval from Council next Tuesday. We are at a point where we can’t move forward,” warned Westbrook.

[Brian Postelle regularly writes for Xpress.]

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