According to Ann Oliva, Asheville and Buncombe County could reduce homelessness by 50% in two years — if they heed the recommendations laid out by her organization, the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Oliva, the nonprofit’s CEO, made that claim as she presented a new report commissioned by the city of Asheville. City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners met in joint session Jan. 25 to hear the findings at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville.
“Within Reach: Ending Unsheltered Homelessness in the Asheville-Buncombe [Continuum of Care]” draws on months of research, online surveys, focus groups and interviews with residents. Josh Johnson, a researcher with NATEH, says the nonprofit’s team engaged with over 1,700 people, including more than 250 people who had personal experience with homelessness. Of those respondents, 65% identified as property owners, and 14% identified as business owners.
NATEH’s report identified the top concerns that community members have regarding homelessness. These issues include “a lack of trust in the system,” “concern about the effectiveness of the current homeless strategy,” “public safety concerns” (including from people who are currently homeless), “insufficient affordable housing” and “uncoordinated care and services within a cumbersome system,” Johnson says.
The NATEH report is the second such assessment in two decades to produce a plan for solving homelessness in Asheville and Buncombe County. Looking Homeward: The 10-Year Plan to Reduce Homelessness, researched and written by local government, business and nonprofit leaders in 2005, predicted that the community would have “no homeless people living on the streets or in camps” and a “measurably reduced burden on courts, police, jail, EMS and emergency rooms,” among other results, by 2015.
Much of the presentation focused on the shortcomings of how local governments and service providers currently collaborate to address homelessness. Those efforts “are not coordinated as a system so [are] not maximizing impact,” the NATEH report found.
“The most effective systems have strong leadership and strong structures, and there is shared accountability,” Oliva said. For a structure to function smoothly, she added, both service providers and the public must have clarity around “who has what piece of the puzzle” in terms of roles and responsibilities.
As a way to strengthen collaboration, the NATEH recommended overhauling Asheville and Buncombe’s Continuum of Care program. Currently steered by the city’s Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee, the CoC program is tasked with implementing strategies to prevent homelessness and serving as a point of contact for federal funding opportunities, among other roles.
The committee has eight seats appointed by City Council and eight seats appointed by the county Board of Commissioners — an unusual structure, Johnson noted. Out of roughly 350 CoC programs nationwide, he said, he’d never seen a planning body structured that way.
The presentation cited Houston as a municipality with a more inclusive setup, allowing steering committee appointments to be made by other local stakeholders, and a more defined CoC structure. Oliva explained how Houston’s CoC program has multiple planning and implementation bodies for areas like veteran homelessness, youth homelessness and chronic homelessness.
The report recommended hiring a dedicated staffer within Buncombe County government to facilitate and lead cross-agency and intradepartmental work on homelessness. This full-time employee would have a projected budget allocation of $100,00-$125,000. Oliva also recommended that the community allocate $24,000 annually to hire people with personal experience of homelessness for the CoC.
Another key takeaway from the report is that “Community shelter capacity and rapid rehousing interventions are inadequate.” Rapid rehousing is a form of rental assistance, which can be supplied either short- or medium-term, that connects an individual with a caseworker and access to supportive services.
The community has only 41 annual rapid rehousing slots for single, nonveteran adults, which doesn’t meet the current need, Johnson explained. Buncombe County’s shelter capacity also isn’t sufficient to support the current need, with only 105 year-round beds available for single, nonveteran adults, he continued. (Shelter capacity increases during the winter months when the Code Purple procedure, which is called when the temperature is 32 degrees or lower, activates additional beds at local shelters.)
“There is not enough affordable housing even for folks who have assistance,” Oliva told the assembled audience at Harrah’s. “Your system is stuck. The system is stuck in part because your affordability [isn’t] very high.”
Citing Zillow Economic Research, from the Zillow.com real estate site, Oliva said that rents had risen 41.7% in Asheville from March 2020 to October 2022. The lack of affordable housing, she continued, has led to “an overrepresentation of people of color” among the homeless population, as well as LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.
Among the short-term action items to address the affordable housing challenge, the report recommends the community “create a high-utilizer initiative.” Oliva explained that effort could consist of a housing-focused pilot program to rehouse up to 20 long-term shelter residents who require multiple supportive services. Successfully housing these individuals, she added, “can create some positive momentum in your community.”
The report also recommends that Asheville and Buncombe “promote a housing surge.” Oliva suggested the community try “a 100-Day Challenge” to house people experiencing chronic homelessness and to identify landlords to participate. The presentation noted that such an initiative “requires significant Rapid Rehousing investment.”
A major issue with affordable housing is a lack of units, said Mayor Esther Manheimer. In response, Oliva shared that in her experience working in other communities a housing surge requires “a set of landlord engagement strategies.”
Johnson also added that “master leasing,” in which an entity such as a housing authority leases from a landlord and subleases to tenants, is a technique that has worked in other communities to supply a housing surge.
While the report and presentation shared plentiful facts and figures, there was a significant emotional appeal on behalf of the presenters to the community: work better together.
Oliva and Johnson repeatedly noted the passion and engagement of the community when it comes to solving homelessness, and the NATEH report indicated one of Asheville-Buncombe’s community values is to “be bold,” which it explained means “remain[ing] faithful to aggressive goals, strategies, and actions it commits to, even when there are tough decisions to be made.”
Elaborating further, Johnson implored the community to tap into that boldness. “We can’t be scared to make tough decisions,” he said. “Politics will not drive policies.”
Respondents to NATEH’s research continually voiced “historical issues of mistrust” in the community as an impediment to ending homelessness. “We can’t allow a history of issues to affect our future decisions,” Johnson said, drawing audience applause.