Asheville is gearing up to conduct its annual Point-in-Time count of unhoused community members Tuesday-Wednesday, Jan. 25-26. But even without the official numbers, which are typically released by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in June, it’s clear that the city is facing a new reckoning around homelessness.
The Asheville Police Department has recently cleared multiple homeless encampments, including sites behind the Haywood Street Congregation, at Aston Park and on the French Broad Greenway; at a Jan. 11 City Council meeting, APD announced it would reduce the notice it gives campers to relocate from a week to no more than two days. The city’s plans for a low-barrier homeless shelter at an East Asheville Ramada Inn fell apart in the face of neighborhood opposition and funding partner concerns, and City Council shifted the project to permanent supportive housing with little public notice.
Frigid temperatures further complicate the situation. The Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Coalition called Code Purple, an emergency shelter protocol for freezing nights, 16 times in November. But the city’s two Code Purple shelters, located at the Salvation Army for women and children and Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry’s Costello House (renamed from Steadfast House) for men, only opened Dec. 1.
According to data presented at a Jan. 4 meeting of Buncombe County’s Affordable Housing Committee, Asheville has 256 beds for longer-term transitional housing, primarily at ABCCM, and 179 beds for short-term emergency shelter among various service providers. In 2021, Asheville and Buncombe County’s PIT count identified 527 unhoused individuals, including both those sleeping on the streets and those sheltered in emergency or transitional housing. Those numbers suggest the county is at least 90 beds short of having enough space.
And the Rev. Amy Cantrell, co-director of the nonprofit BeLoved Asheville, believes 2021’s homeless population was undercounted compared with what her organization encounters on the street. “Many of us feel like the Point-in-Time count last year was very off,” Cantrell tells Xpress. (Brian Huskey, a community development analyst with the city, says Asheville is partnering with local agencies to improve the county of unaccompanied homeless youth this year.)
“We don’t have enough emergency shelter and we’ve been advocating for that for a long time,” adds Cantrell.
Everyone who works with unhoused individuals in Asheville agrees the situation needs urgent action. Members of the region’s nonprofit and faith communities are leading a number of immediate responses.
Earlier this month, ABCCM announced its intention to operate Costello House at 141 Hillside St. as a seasonal emergency shelter for men from November to March. (The nonprofit’s Transformation Village can provide emergency space for women and children.) “Since 2017, I have proposed this to the city and the county,” the Rev. Scott Rogers, executive director of ABCCM, tells Xpress, saying that local leaders have declined funding support each time.
Rogers notes that Code Purple shelters are only activated when the weather is below freezing. But unhoused people still need emergency shelter when the weather is above freezing or when it’s raining. A winter shelter such as Costello House could provide that.
On the night of Jan. 13, Costello House had 43 male guests; the shelter had space for 50 beds, Rogers says.
ABCCM receives about $1,500 per night from city and county funding when it operates as a Code Purple shelter, Rogers says. He estimates a 24/7 winter shelter would cost about $60,000 per month.
“For January, February and March, we can staff and feed and provide laundry services, showers, warmth and stability,” he says. “That also will help provide some connection to these folks to jobs and to longer-term housing.”
As of press time, ABCCM’s webpage for Costello House appeals for funding from other churches. “ABCCM needs churches to come together again, as they have so many times, to solve an urgent need in our community,” the site reads. “ABCCM needs 52 churches or a combination of partnering churches to cover each week of the year.”
“ABCCM currently has enough staff for evening shelter but not enough for 24/7 day shelter,” the page continues, noting that donations of food, cleaning supplies and linens are also needed. It suggests $2,000 a month as a recommended giving level for Costello House — Open Door Shelter.
Rogers says he’d like to see the community unite around existing ABCCM shelters, as well as the Salvation Army and West Carolina Rescue Ministries. “We already have a very robust and healthy network of shelter providers who already have training staff,” he says. “If we simply better funded and equipped them …. we’ve got enough expertise and capacity to welcome in everybody who’s in need right now.”
‘Building this as we go’
Other faith communities attempting to serve the unhoused population are learning as they go.
Trinity United Methodist Church at 587 Haywood Road began to host a volunteer-run emergency Code Purple shelter Nov. 25 and operated for six nights until the city’s official Code Purple shelters opened Dec. 1. Building on the momentum of that temporary shelter, Trinity’s emergency shelter reopened Jan. 4 and has operated continually since.
The goal of the Trinity shelter is to fill the service gaps of the Salvation Army and Costello House shelters, including families, single-father families, couples and people with pets, says Cantrell. Additionally, queer, gender-nonconforming and transgender people have expressed that they feel particularly welcomed at Trinity.
“The people that need shelter look like humanity,” says Cantrell. “There’s lots of different types of needs. The shelter system has sort of been stuck, I think, in where it’s been for a very, very long time where you have a men’s shelter, a women’s shelter.” That configuration doesn’t take into account “the many different facets of what peoples’ lives actually look like as workers, as families, as people,” she explains.
Trinity’s volunteers sign up for evening, overnight and day shifts via a spreadsheet. Its meals are organized the same way. Amanda Kollar, a parishioner at the forefront of the volunteer effort, says dinner plans often materialize the same day food is served — like the spaghetti dinner served one evening, donated by Cantrell.
Kollar employs the metaphor of building a plane as it is flying. “Not only are we trying to figure out day-to-day what we’re going to have to eat, we’re trying to figure out how to organize the volunteers, what are our guidelines, what are the protocols,” she explains.
Keeping the shelter financially afloat is also an ongoing process. “Our utility bill is going to go up exponentially,” says the Rev. Nancy Dixon, the church’s pastor. But offering the emergency shelter, she continues, has also brought resources to the church, like new friends. “Those kinds of resources are their own currency, if you will,” she says.
Trinity is soliciting donations for its shelter on its website through Venmo. The church is exploring other financial options, but Dixon declines to elaborate further. “I believe our city and county officials want the best for our most vulnerable people, and they’re struggling to find what will work best for our community,” she says. “I’m excited by the conversations that are being had amongst all the nonprofit service providers and our government officials. Things are shifting.”
On a recent Saturday night, the Trinity shelter’s guests included a young couple, a transgender individual and a man with a dog. One woman was eagerly sharing book recommendations, particularly ones about forgiveness. The guests made their own tacos and gathered around the dinner table with volunteers and their kids, who colored place mats with crayons and tossed a ball around. There was talk of watching a movie on Netflix together later in the evening, but most guests looked as if they wanted to rest.
‘A policy issue’
Trinity volunteers formed a Winter Shelter Steering Committee in November as plans for the church’s emergency Code Purple shelter came together. The committee has since expanded its focus to bring community members and other churches, including Rogers from ABCCM and Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church, together to discuss larger solutions. It’s done so with the assistance of the recently formed nonprofit Accessing Needed Crisis and Critical Help Outreach and Resources and its director, Dan Pizzo.
The committee has a core group from various mental health and harm reduction organizations, including RHA Health Services and the Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness, and has welcomed community stakeholders such as Rogers, Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrera, City Council member Kim Roney, Community and Development Homeless Services Systems Lead Emily Ball and Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer.
Dixon, Trinity’s pastor, is optimistic that gathering stakeholders at the same table is the way forward. “I have been told that the conversation amongst the service providers, the nonprofits, the government and the faith community has not felt this way for a long time — if it ever has,” she says.
She thinks the recent clearing of homeless encampments has “opened up the conversation because it has presented a clearer picture of the struggles and humanity of our unhoused neighbors.”
Kate Shem, a Grace Covenant parishioner, found her way to the Winter Shelter Steering Committee through BeLoved, which has a long-time partnership with her church. Shem notes that churches are able to activate volunteers quickly and can operate outside of nonprofit constraints. “But it’s also not the solution,” she says.
She appreciates her church urging parishioners to meet current needs while also focusing on longer-term solutions.
“This is a policy issue that the city needs to invest in,” Shem says. “The amount of money needed isn’t churches passing the offering plate around — this is sustainable money that needs an investment from the community.”