On a recent rainy Tuesday, the scene looked like an evening in any other West Asheville home. Kids, including a boisterous, barefoot toddler, gathered around a wooden puzzle on the floor. A mother kept an eye on her children as “Puss in Boots” projected on a big screen in the background. Dinner that night would be ribs.
The space was the West Asheville Presbyterian Church — now a temporary home for 12 individuals staying in a new winter shelter. The guests when Xpress visited included six children, among them a 2-month-old infant, two sets of parents and two single adults.
Although Asheville has numerous shelters for the homeless population, its organizers say this particular shelter fills gaps in the city’s current system. “The focus is on intact families,” explains shelter worker Gene Ettison. “And if families don’t fill the beds, we’ll offer safe spaces to other individuals — [LGBTQ people and people of color] that face barriers or feel unsafe in traditional shelters.”
Grace Episcopal Church employs the shelter workers through funding from several groups, including Vaya Health, the Rotary Club of Asheville, Tzedeck Social Justice Fund and the WNC Bridge Foundation; the city of Asheville also provided around $6,000 in funding. The church has partnered with Asheville-based local organization Counterflow on logistical planning, and the effort is supported by volunteers from Grace Episcopal, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church and Trinity United Methodist Church.
It’s “hopefully going to create this familylike community, where we’re able to come up with out-of-the box solutions and innovative ways to really help the families we’re serving with more permanent solutions,” says Counterflow co-founder Anna Pizzo.
The shelter at West Asheville Presbyterian opened to guests Dec. 21. However, the collective effort to open a winter shelter had been in the process for months; the three churches backing the project had each volunteered space for a shelter in their facilities for one month each from Jan. 4 to March 31. Given the freezing temperatures this season, the organizers also hoped to open another suitable shelter space earlier, but they faced numerous obstacles to finding a location.
Organizers say the winter shelter improves on the emergency overflow space activated when the Asheville Homeless Coalition calls Code Purple in freezing temperatures. (The first Code Purple went into effect Oct. 15.)
Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry is providing all Code Purple beds this year. The nonprofit’s Veterans Restoration Quarters offers 50 for single men, while Transformation Village provides 45 for single women and women with children. But because Code Purple shelters are separated by gender, family members can be separated overnight: For example, a mom would stay in the women’s shelter, while her teenage son would stay in the men’s shelter. A family setting provides “consistency,” explains shelter worker Tracey Childers.
On the evening Xpress visited the site, the guests shared one large room containing six mattresses, a cot and a bassinet. The space contains a communal kitchen and bathroom, and two tables are set up for meals and art projects.
All dinnertime meals are provided by donation. Ettison is a chef and food truck owner, and he’s leveraged his contacts at local restaurants Chestnut, Corner Kitchen and Tastee Diner, as well as the food donation nonprofits Equal Plates Project and Food Connection Asheville, to keep everyone fed.
The shelter is open and staffed 6:30 p.m.-8:30 a.m. Its organizers intentionally prioritize hiring people with lived experience of homelessness; Ettison, who is also certified as a peer support specialist, notes he once lived out of his vehicle for 13 weeks. Those staff members are joined by volunteers, usually from the participating church congregations, who drop off donations of paper towels or toilet paper and cook and share meals.
Some guests have already transitioned into permanent housing, including a mother with a toddler who stayed for a week. After departures, new guests arrive from a waiting list of referrals from groups like Haywood Street Congregation and BeLoved Asheville.
The winter shelter hopes to stay at West Asheville Presbyterian through the end of March to ensure consistency for the guests. The Presbytery of Western North Carolina, which manages the church, met Jan. 10 and agreed to allow the shelter to operate there through March 31, Pizzo says. Additionally, on Jan. 6, the city confirmed it would issue a temporary use permit for West Asheville Presbyterian, as well as the other three churches for one month each.
Asheville Primary School, which closed as an elementary school in the spring, nearly became the shelter’s location after support from the Asheville City Board of Education during a Dec. 15 meeting.
Pizzo says she had the support of Asheville City Schools Superintendent Jim Causby for a memorandum of understanding that addressed safety and liability issues with the possible use of the building. Several winter shelter organizers also toured the facility with school board members and representatives of the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association prior to the vote. “We as a group have tried to be as open and transparent and considerate as possible and engage neighbors and neighborhood groups in East-West Asheville,” says the Rev. Mike Reardon of Grace Episcopal Church.
Not all of those neighbors supported using the vacant school for a shelter. Causby tells Xpress he received a copy of an email sent to Asheville Board of Education Chair James Carter “from the chair of the community organization East West Asheville [Neighborhood Association] about their concerns on the use of the building as a shelter site.”
In an interview with Xpress, EWANA board Chair Billy Doubraski said that he understands the city’s need for shelter space. But he questions the appropriateness of APS as a location. “That’s not what we’re looking for in that space. … That’s a contested space,” Doubraski says, because the building previously held a beloved school. “People less than a year ago were out in droves trying to keep that school open. … It feels a little bit like a slap in the face that this is the spot that you guys want to utilize for a shelter.”
Ultimately, however, the city of Asheville determined that zoning regulations prohibited the use of the school as a shelter. The school’s address, 441 Haywood Road, is zoned in the Haywood Road Form District – Core, and multifamily dwellings, dormitories, group homes and hotels are not permitted there by city ordinances.
Pizzo says the winter shelter organizers sought clarity from the city in November about zoning regulations for shelter space, but those questions weren’t answered. Instead, City Attorney Brad Branham conveyed that information to Asheville City Schools in a Dec. 19 statement. “Given the current zoning, specifically that which encompasses the buildings, and the fact that the property currently has no active use, the city believes that a rezoning for the site will be necessary to accommodate the proposed shelter use,” Branham wrote.
With the school option unavailable, the organizers turned to Plan B: West Asheville Presbyterian.
The church is currently not in operation, but the building has a caretaker and is managed by the Presbytery of Western North Carolina. The Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop of Grace Covenant Presbyterian, who is on the administrative team for the Presbytery, tells Xpress she initially believed the church was unusable for sleeping overnight because its sprinklers don’t work.
But after taking a closer look at the church’s fire code, Shoop realized guests would be permitted to stay if a worker stayed awake overnight and a fire extinguisher was on hand. That came as welcome news to shelter worker and certified peer support specialist Kat Sullivan: “I kept saying, ‘I feel like I’m on a roller coaster!” due to the shifting plans.
With a location chosen, the hustle to “throw some things together and make this work” kicked into gear, explains shelter worker Childers. Ettison immediately arranged the downstairs space, which will be used for the shelter, to be cleaned. Shelter workers coordinated donations of mattresses, sheets, towels, toiletries and items like tea kettles and board games; one of the first parents to stay contributed a Christmas tree.
“We all just feel grateful that we made it happen together,” says Shoop. “It took doing it together to make it happen.