by Andrew R. Jones, Sally Kestin and John Boyle
It wasn’t always this way. Yes, downtown Asheville has long had problems with homelessness and petty crime, but something has changed profoundly in just the past few years.
That’s how Asheville Watchdog began its “Down Town” series three months ago, meticulously reporting how and why, particularly since the pivotal year 2020 — the pandemic, the George Floyd protests, the closing of the downtown police substation — many people living, working and visiting in Western North Carolina’s largest city are feeling less safe.
We reported crime statistics and how some homeless people are aggressive and even confrontational, enabled by the lack of law enforcement, the pervasive use of methamphetamine and fentanyl, and a justice system that arrests mentally ill homeless people and returns them to the streets time and again.
And a frequent complaint we heard is that city officials were not responsive. “I’ve not heard a thing from the city,” or, “I don’t even bother calling the police,” were all-too-common responses among the dozens of downtown residents, business owners, workers, and visitors we interviewed.
Asheville is certainly not unique in facing the challenges we’ve explored in our “Down Town” series. The deterioration of Asheville’s downtown area has its roots in problems familiar to other cities: a shortage of affordable housing, inadequate treatment for mental illness, an increase in pervasive drug use and a failure of local government to address the problems in a timely or effective manner.
As we conclude the “Down Town” series, our Watchdog reporters turn their attention to other cities that have had some success in addressing the challenges we have in common.
In this three-part conclusion, we’ll summarize what we uncovered in our reporting, and what the experts and others we talked to, including local homeless people, believe are the most pressing problems.
In this, Part 10: A poorly coordinated leadership structure that is responsible for addressing homelessness in Asheville, but lacks authority and accountability among the many public and private groups trying to address it.
In Part 11, we’ll explore alternative approaches to the inadequate treatment options for people with mental illness, which is often linked to drug use and puts extraordinary burdens on the police, responders and the justice system.
And in Part 12, we’ll examine Asheville’s lack of affordable housing, which research shows is the primary driver of homelessness and ultimately the answer for preventing it.
Ineffective leadership in Asheville, HIAC
Homelessness in Asheville is among the most vexing and polarizing problems — and one that draws on an extraordinarily vast and costly response involving multiple city and county departments, hospitals, the court system, at least a half dozen nonprofits and countless volunteers.
In charge of overseeing it all is the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee, whose members are appointed by the Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners. HIAC’s mission is to create policies and evaluate strategies “to most effectively end homelessness in Asheville and Buncombe County.”
But the committee does not even know how much money is being spent on homeless services, has limited say in the overall direction of those services, and lacks clear measures that the public can use to evaluate what’s working.
The committee governs policy, strategy, and federal resource allocation for Buncombe’s “continuum of care” or point organization for homelessness, and includes representation from many of the agencies involved in the homeless response. But for years, those organizations often have operated independently, raising money and developing their own projects and programs.
“A lot of effort has been happening for a long time, but it’s been in this very kind of disjointed way,” said Emily Ball, Asheville’s homeless strategy manager. “We don’t have a cohesive system that’s clear, that works together, that has a common goal where … providers are working in unison with transparency and clarity and a real outcome orientation around ending homelessness.”
Buncombe receives about $2 million in federal funding for homelessness, and private organizations raise millions more, but the committee has not calculated the total spent on homeless services. Asheville Watchdog reviewed the most recent annual financial statements for the six largest nonprofit providers and found they spent a combined total of more than $19 million.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy brought in by Asheville and Buncombe County earlier this year, recommended a stronger, more effective leadership structure, along with better methods for tracking total spending and allocating resources. The Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee is analyzing how to incorporate those and other recommendations from the consultant.
“We haven’t been thinking strategically as a system and we haven’t been collaborating as a system,” Ball said. “We’ve had all these pockets of agencies doing their own work with their own vision and mission and dollars.”
The lack of a coordinated system has kept Asheville from filling gaps and adopting strategies that other cities have found successful.
Alexandria’s centralized entry system
Alexandria, Va., has about 60,000 more people than Asheville but a homeless population that is about one-fourth of Buncombe County’s.
Alexandria’s most recent unsheltered count — those living on the streets, in tents or vehicles — was just 10, compared to 171 in Asheville/Buncombe.
Alexandria coordinates all of its continuum of care services for unsheltered people — or people at risk of becoming homeless — through a single coordinating agency, the Partnership to Prevent & End Homelessness. The purpose of the Partnership, a collaboration of public and private entities, is “to ensure the planning, coordination and implementation of an effective and efficient system-wide response to homelessness within the City of Alexandria.”
The first step on the continuum is a comprehensive assessment at the city’s Homeless Services Assessment Center.
Workers interview clients to explore housing options — staying with a friend or relative or tapping rental assistance funds to prevent an eviction, “doing anything and everything we can to keep people out of shelter,” said Stefan Caine, the continuum of care lead.
“Definitely something that we use, and that does work for us, is trying to coordinate with folks that are coming into services that are not necessarily long-term Alexandria residents, trying to connect them back with their jurisdiction of origin,” Caine said. “You’ve got to kind of stem the tide of folks coming in and try to stretch your resources as far as you can.”
Asheville’s efforts to keep people out of the homeless services system — diversion — are not as extensive as Alexandria’s, Ball said. “Diversion at that depth is not happening,” she said, “and is one of our opportunities.”
Asheville also has no central point for assessments. Each of the agencies engaged in homeless services conducts its own assessment using a common tool, Ball said.
“We have a handful of access points that are generally doing the same thing and are funneling into a common pool the people seeking services . . . and then from that pool people through a clear process are getting connected with housing,” Ball said. “But we definitely don’t have a coordinated entry system.”
Asheville’s Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee is currently exploring a centralized entry system like Alexandria’s, Ball said.
“Functional zero” homelessness in Rockford, Ill.
Rockford, Ill., keeps a list — a very detailed, extensive list of every single homeless person in the city.
A former furniture manufacturing hub of 150,000 people about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, Rockford struggled with a homeless problem similar to many other American cities. But it’s also taken an approach to curbing homelessness that has gained the city national attention.
The list played a key role in the city reaching milestones of “functional zero” for its veteran and chronically homeless populations — the first city in the U.S. to do so Angie Walker, Rockford’s homeless program coordinator, told Asheville Watchdog.
Rockford uses what it calls a “by-name list” that includes everyone in the area they know is homeless.
“We actually go name by name,” Walker said. “And I think the benefit of that is that a lot of places just talk about the homeless as one big group, right? Not necessarily a face, not necessarily a name, but just a giant group of people that are in many cases, just a nuisance. We don’t talk about people that way.”
Instead, they’ll discuss where “John Smith” is staying, who’s addressing his needs, if he’s still drinking a lot, if he got a job, she said.
“So we actually talk about them as individuals, and we help them as individuals, based on what they need,” Walker said. “We might know that John has a criminal record, so he can go to a certain landlord. But we also might know that he’s eligible for something else. Our system is very personalized.”
“Functional zero” does not mean a community has zero homeless people. Rockford contracts with Community Solutions, a nonprofit based in New York City, that works toward ending homelessness through a Housing First model. “Functional zero,” according to Community Solutions, is a measure that means “the number of people experiencing homelessness at any time does not exceed the community’s proven record of housing at least that many people in a month.”
Asheville has a by-name list for homeless veterans — about one-third of the homeless population — but not for nonveterans, Ball said. “Every agency has kind of their own client list.”
Asheville’s Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee is working to devise a more “comprehensive real-time picture of who’s experiencing homelessness, where they are, who’s on point for them, and what housing intervention they need,” Ball said.
Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara said his city struggles with the same problems many do, including violent crime. But Rockford has gained attention for its success in addressing homelessness.
“You know, everyone calls us about homelessness, and I would say it’s not all that difficult,” McNamara told Asheville Watchdog. “It’s, ‘Is it a priority to you or not? And if it is, are you willing to allocate some resources and staff resources, and time and energy and come at it from a collaborative form?’ And if you are, it’s really not that hard.”
Low-barrier shelter in Flagstaff
Sitting at nearly 7,000 feet elevation in the mountains of northern Arizona, Flagstaff shares similarities with Asheville: a tight housing market with few available rentals and an affordability gap.
Flagstaff’s homeless population, fluctuating between 450 and 650, is also comparable to Asheville’s. But Flagstaff has fewer people sleeping outside in part because of a large shelter with an open-door policy.
The nonprofit Flagstaff Shelter Services operates a 200-bed shelter that has counseling, a health clinic, case managers to help with housing, and resources for domestic violence, substance abuse, and debt management. It’s also “low-barrier.”
“We take anybody if they show up; we don’t turn people away,” Ross Schaefer, executive director, told The Watchdog. “And that means that we take sex offenders, we take people that are intoxicated. … We don’t require people to be sober, which is different than the other shelter in our community that’s a faith-based organization.”
That Christian shelter, located downtown, “has been compassionately serving all in Jesus’s name since 1957,” according to its website.
The low-barrier shelter Schaefer runs is outside the city core.
Flagstaff, like Asheville, has had complaints from downtown businesses about crime and cleanliness related to the homeless population, Schaefer said.
“Working with the downtown business alliance here has been, I think, something that has been incredibly effective,” she said.
Surveys of Buncombe County residents, conducted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness last year, found that “respondents reported overwhelming concerns of mental health and substance use-induced crises within the unsheltered population — and reported that they do not know what to do about it or who to call.”
Schaefer said Flagstaff created a document that listed resources and phone numbers and distributed it to business owners who “had questions and wanted to handle things in a way that weren’t just like calling the police every time somebody was sitting on their stoop.”
Homeless people in Asheville told consultants that the city’s existing shelters, operated by faith organizations, were too restrictive. “People using the system and community members expressed concerns that shelter is not accessible or easy to stay in for those who need and want it,” the consultant’s report said.
Flagstaff’s low-barrier shelter has some restrictions. Pets are allowed with rules: “If your animal is in here, it has to be on a leash; if it’s fighting with other people or animals then it can’t stay,” Schaefer said.
Drug and alcohol use are not permitted in the shelter, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re not putting down their bottle before they come in,” she said. “It leads to challenges, for sure. … I think it’s really important to be able to access the services that your community can offer, regardless of who you are, what you look like, what you worship.”
Following a recommendation from its consultant, Asheville’s homeless committee has issued a “request for partnership” for organizations to add 95 shelter beds in Buncombe — 60 for single adults, 25 for people with medical, mental health or substance abuse needs, and 10 for families. The beds must be “inviting and accessible” to all in need and have no requirements for sobriety or upfront identification, the request says.
There’s been some interest in adding shelter beds for families and individuals with needs, but not yet for the 60 single adults, said David Nash, chairman of the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee who also is executive director of the Asheville Housing Authority.
“I know that city and county leadership are both interested if we need to look into building a new facility,” Nash said. That could take two to three years, he said, but the committee hopes some shelter beds will be available by October.
A low-barrier shelter with minimal restrictions like the one in Flagstaff is “life-saving,” Schaeffer said. “Honestly, people aren’t going to come into shelter if they have to be sober.”
Greenville alliance addressed a ‘lack of shared vision’
The area near downtown Greenville, S.C., about 65 miles south of Asheville, was known as “the homeless triangle.”
“The area tends to serve as a magnet for people who are experiencing homelessness, including the chronically homeless,” a report created by a mediation team stated. In 2017, at least three different faith-based organizations ran shelters and outreach services there for people without homes.
“Local residents and businesses interviewed were predominantly understanding of the nature of the neighborhood, but there have been conflicts and complaints,” the report said. “In recent years, frustration and resentment with the problems associated with the presence and actions of people who are experiencing homelessness built up.”
Rance Bryan, chairman of the Greenville Downtown Merchant Association and an executive at Bank of Travelers Rest, located downtown, remembered what it was like in parts of downtown in 2017.
Bryan recalled once walking to Falls Park downtown. “I think three or four people asked me for money and I just was like ‘Wow, this is a lot.’”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Greenville saw an increase in homelessness.
“I think it was just more sleeping or coming into a business and being in there for two hours but not buying anything,” Bryan said. “Or coming in and going in the bathroom and staying in there for an hour.”
“And that’s not the case now,” he said.
Downtown merchants told Asheville Watchdog that unhoused people remain in downtown Greenville, but tensions have lessened. Crime and drug use are not big concerns downtown, they said.
Bryan said the Merchant Association gives downtown business owners a direct line not only to city officials — the city employs a downtown project manager — but also to homelessness organizations, who now regularly attend monthly merchant meetings.
United Housing Connections, based in Greenville, is the continuum of care lead for Greenville and surrounding counties known as the “Upstate.”
It builds, owns and manages affordable housing for low-income people.
UHC works closely with the Greenville Homeless Alliance, a nonprofit with 120 members representing over 60 public and private organizations.
The Alliance formed in 2015 with the publication of a whitepaper that found a “lack of shared vision and approach, a lack of systemic and deep … collaboration.”
“Cooperative efforts exist, but in response to an urgent need rather than as an operating norm,” the report found.
The Alliance was still relatively new when in 2017 concerns about the “triangle” heated up over expansion plans by one of the homeless services providers and out-of-town charities bringing in food, generating complaints about increasing crime and trash.
The Alliance arranged to bring in attorneys from a nonprofit mediation center.
“It actually worked,” said Susan McLarty, director of the Alliance. “Our mayor at the time … said it was the one of the most successful community engagement processes he’d ever seen.”
The Alliance remains a leading force behind ending homelessness in Greenville. UHC, the arm of the federally regulated response to homelessness, provides quarterly reports to the Alliance and its partners, ensuring that every organization is on the same page.
“We call ourselves a convener and a connector,” McLarty said. “When you put different minds together you are always going to come up with a better solution.”
Downtown, Greenville and UHC collaborated on a way to address panhandling in a 2020 campaign the city described as “a better way to help.” About a dozen signs are posted around the city with a QR code leading to a page suggesting donations to the homeless service providers.
“Tourism is big for Greenville, and so we have a lot of visitors,” said Cameron Campbell, Greenville’s downtown project manager. “Not only are our citizens extremely caring and compassionate, our visitors are, too.”
Campbell said the city worked with municipalities in Canada, Florida, and other states to create the initiative. The Greenville Homeless Alliance recently created a video on how to understand and react to panhandling.
The sign project has “probably been more impactful because it is so visible,” Campbell said.
“I just got a donation this morning from somebody in North Carolina,” UHC CEO Loraine Crowl said. “I get them from Dallas. I get it from a lot of places and they’re from visitors that come to Greenville that see those signs and they give.”
In an interview with Asheville Watchdog, Crowl said collaboration is key for Greenville’s response to homelessness.
“Everybody’s in,” Crowl said. “It’s not just service providers, not just the police department, not just the city or county. It’s everybody. It’s a community issue. We preach that constantly.”
Next: Down Town, Part 11: Alternative approaches to treatment options for people with mental illness.
Asheville Watchdog is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email email@example.com. John Boyle has been covering news in western North Carolina since the 20th century. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.