Lacy Hoyle was drawn to helping people even as a child. “I was the kid who used to beg my mom to stop and get food for folks asking for food at exits,” she explains. “It really does feel like a calling for me.”
Providing services to this population became her life’s work. She studied psychology at UNC Asheville and has worked at nonprofits for the majority of her career: 12 years at Western North Carolina AIDS Project, where she was a medical case manager before becoming director of client services, and one year at Homeward Bound of WNC as the director of its rapid rehousing program.
In August, Hoyle jumped from nonprofits to the government when Buncombe County hired her as its first homeless-program manager. Her role was recommended in the National Alliance to End Homelessness’s study Within Reach: Ending Unsheltered Homelessness in the Asheville-Buncombe Continuum of Care, released in January 2023. Her job is to unify efforts across multiple departments. “There were lots of folks at the county doing bits and pieces [addressing homelessness],” Hoyle says. “I think it’s really helpful to have dedicated staff working on this issue.” She notes that rural homelessness in particular falls under the county’s purview.
Hoyle spoke with Xpress about the local priorities for addressing homelessness, how she incorporates the views of those who have different beliefs than she does about its causes and misconceptions about the homeless population.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed for length.
What are Buncombe County’s top priorities for addressing homelessness?
The Within Reach study broke [priorities] down into short-, medium- and long-term goals. The Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee had already identified which short-term and medium-term priorities they wanted to focus on. I just stepped in to help coordinate those efforts.
But it’s a priority for me — and for the folks who are telling me what my priority should be — to look at increasing shelter capacity and what role any local government might have to play in that. That’s something that the city and the county are both very interested in, so it’s a natural fit for me to be working on it.
Also, there’s priorities that I am interested in, like outreach and encampment response. I’m interested in that because it’s quickly become apparent to me that we need to flesh out our encampment response, particularly for rural encampments. But there is already work being done by a [Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee] workgroup about encampment response.
Some people have strong opinions on how to fix homelessness. But the avenues for fixing it are multifaceted and can be complicated. How can people better understand the many different factors that go into the problem and how to solve it?
The way that I’ve approached it is just breaking down some of those nuts and bolts. [Homeless strategy specialist] Debbie Alford at the city is doing a homelessness learning series, and she’s been doing an excellent job of that. She’s starting at the beginning with what’s causing homelessness, how did we get here and what is our response. … [It’s important to] provide some basic education about what is the Continuum of Care, what does that mean and what does it do.
I think also connecting tangible actions to the general public is going to be important because I can talk about the CoC all day long, and eventually they’re going to tune out. But if you help connect how [the public] can get involved, and why it is important to do that, then you might catch some people.
One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is keeping my expectations realistic. Some folks are really interested in this and are going to want to learn, and some people [aren’t interested]. Everybody has different opinions.
What is a common misconception about people who are unhoused, or homelessness in general, in Buncombe County?
In terms of homelessness here, there’s a lot of rhetoric right now that folks are living this lawless life on the streets, that they don’t want to be part of society, that they don’t want to get help, that they don’t want their life to change. That’s probably true for some of them. But it’s not true for all of them. It’s not true for a lot of them.
I also think there’s a misconception in general about homelessness, that it should be easily solvable for the individual, that they should just be able to go out and get a job and find a place. It’s just not that easy. Even for the most mentally sound, stable person who’s unhoused, the obstacles to obtaining housing and getting back on their feet are huge.
What bothers me is people who say that [homeless individuals] who are using substances don’t deserve to be part of society — [such as] “We need to remove folks from society until they decide to rehabilitate.” I don’t subscribe to that philosophy, personally or professionally. I think community is what rehabilitates. … Also, there are lots of people who are housed and using drugs, so someone is not homeless because they’re a drug user. It’s not the correlation that people think that it is.
Where do you think these misconceptions come from?
I think it’s hard for some folks to stomach the idea that many people they know, and maybe even themselves, are really not that far from being [homeless]. It just takes a couple of bad events happening for most of us to get to that point. That’s hard for people to deal with. Then we start “other–ing” people — we’re distancing ourselves so that we don’t have to think about how we might be close to that at any point, too.
In a government role, you have to answer to everyone. How are you going to work with people who may believe that — to use your example — homeless people don’t want to be a part of society and are choosing to be drug addicts?
Every perspective is important. I try to really listen to people and meet them where they’re at and try to ask a lot of questions so that I can understand what someone’s perspective really is.
I listened to a webinar recently about the Housing First philosophy and rebranding it to make it more palatable for people. [Housing First is a philosophy that prioritizes placing people in stable housing as a basis from which people can access other needed services, like mental health care.] The message that kept coming through to me that I have been trying to take to people that if you want homelessness to end and you don’t want to see homeless people, let’s give them a space. That’s the answer.
I never want to make anyone feel judged because they have a different perspective than I do. …. I think a common goal between me and some of the folks that don’t agree with me is that we don’t want to see people on the street, for whatever reason. How do we stop that? We give them a safe space.
Do you feel optimistic that Buncombe County and Asheville can curb homelessness in a meaningful way?
Absolutely, I do. I feel like we have a lot of momentum behind us right now since the Within Reach study. … It’s going to take some time. We all have to have reasonable expectations for changing some of our systems and getting some new processes in place. But I’m overall very optimistic about where we’re going.