As fall turns into winter and local temperatures plummet, most folks break out the warm clothes, turn up the heat and hunker down indoors. But for hundreds of Buncombe County men, women and children, the winter months are spent struggling to stay warm on the streets or in temporary shelters.
Last January, the annual Point-in-Time survey, a nationwide tally of the number of individuals and families experiencing homelessness, found that roughly 580 county residents had nowhere to go. Overall homelessness rose 4%, but the county’s chronic homeless population — those who’ve had no place to live for a year or more while struggling with a disabling condition such as substance abuse or mental illness — grew by 50% compared with the previous year.
Emily Ball, senior program director at Homeward Bound, says the increase — the first after nearly a decade in which Asheville’s homeless population held steady at around 500 people — most likely reflects the city’s dwindling supply of affordable housing.
“Folks have a hard time getting back into housing because the units aren’t there or they’re not affordable, so people are staying homeless longer,” she explains.
The survey also found increases among multiple subpopulations. The number of homeless families rose by just over 5%. Homeless veterans saw a 3.6% increase from the previous year, but they accounted for almost half of the local homeless population, with more than 250 people counted. Meanwhile, the number of unaccompanied homeless youth and young adults registered a 26% jump.
If those numbers seem discouraging, however, there’s also good news: Several innovative projects currently in the works should substantially alter the equation in the coming months. Developed by local nonprofits, faith organizations and city-funded initiatives, these efforts will provide housing and support for some of Asheville’s most vulnerable residents while also addressing the deeper causes of homelessness.
First things first
In the last decade, the conventional wisdom on how to deal with the problem has changed, says Brian Huskey, the city’s lead homelessness analyst. Current thinking favors a “housing first” model that tackles the physical aspect of homelessness before attempting to remedy potential causes such as substance abuse or mental illness, notes Huskey, who also serves as a liaison to the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative.
Previously, he explains, “The approach had typically been ‘housing ready’: What steps do people need to take before they’re ready to go into housing? Is it getting their GED or getting their behavioral health care provided for? Is it getting clean and sober?” That approach, he maintains, “created a lot of burning hoops that people had to jump through before they would go into housing.”
Ensuring that people have a place to live, says Ball, helps them develop a sense of stability and safety as they begin to seek help with other issues.
“There’s no preconditions: It’s just like, ‘Oh, you’re homeless? You need a home.’ It’s that simple.”
In October, her organization bought a multifamily property on Short Michigan Avenue in West Asheville to develop into a 13-unit affordable housing community. Funded by a Housing Trust Fund loan, a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and support from anonymous donors, Key Commons will provide permanent residences for people who earn up to 30% of Buncombe County’s median family income. According to HUD, that means a family of four could have an income of up to $19,920 and still qualify for the development.
Although Homeward Bound has helped place more than 2,079 people in residential units through partnerships with private landlords and the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, Key Commons will be the first property to be owned by the nonprofit, which Ball says could pave the way for more such efforts.
“Certainly the goal is to keep replicating that model so that we can have additional housing across the community,” she explains. “Ideally, we’ll have a really diverse portfolio and can be sort of nimble in how we are connecting people with the units, so that it can be the right fit for them and a sustainable fit.”
The Rev. Scott Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, says the faith-based organization has a long history of helping Asheville’s homeless women and children, begining with the establishment of Steadfast House in 2011. With nearly 50 beds, the facility provides transitional housing and case management services that have benefited hundreds of local women and children. But a large and persistent waiting list, notes Rogers, was a sign that the organization needed to do more.
“For the last five years, we’ve had 300 women on the waiting list,” he says. “So when we found this 24 acres, we thought, ‘What would a facility to really take care of 300 women, including moms with children, look like?’”
In partnership with churches, support groups and funders, ABCCM envisioned Transformation Village, a massive 43,000-square-foot facility that will occupy a 24-acre site near the Asheville Outlets on Brevard Road. The housing complex will feature 50 emergency shelter beds, 100 transitional housing units, an on-site clinic and longer term supportive housing units for an additional 150 women and children. The ambitious undertaking will be built in stages, with a roughly $13 million price tag for phase one; to date, the nonprofit has raised nearly $10 million. The entire project is expected to cost about $23 million.
“We are so excited,” Rogers exclaims while gazing at the building as construction workers mill around the site. “It’s overwhelming.” The completed project will also require about 1,000 new volunteers.
The ABCCM team, says Rogers, also worked with the county’s Family Justice Center to develop trauma-specific areas where survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other forms of abuse can meet with counselors. Other rooms will offer child enrichment opportunities and training for 17 different careers, including culinary arts. Each woman under Transformation Village’s care, he explains, will receive an individualized recovery plan spanning education, child care and counseling. While the women will be able to call the state-of-the-art facility home for up to two years, Rogers expects that most will stay for seven-12 months.
“Our success rate for the last 11 years, for men and women, is that 8 out of 10 leave us and never come back to homelessness. And we know they don’t come back because we’re following them for two years after they leave us,” he notes. “A lot of programs may follow folks for six months or a year, but we’re there with them, making sure that if they do hit potholes or speed bumps in life, there’s someone there to help them strategically process those or overcome them and stay on their feet.”
Once Transformation Village is fully operational, continues Rogers, ABCCM plans to sell Steadfast House and move both its current residents and those on the waitlist into the new facility.
“We had a sister freeze to death on the streets of Asheville,” remembers the Rev. Amy Cantrell, co-director of BeLoved Asheville. “Her name was Janet Jones.”
The homeless woman, who died of hypothermia in October 2016, was a tragic example of what can happen to people who lack shelter, says Cantrell. In the aftermath, “We literally sat in a circle of folks impacted by the housing crisis. It was a real natural container to say, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ Her death really became the catalyst for some of the most innovative work that we’ve gotten to do.”
BeLoved’s latest endeavor is also the organization’s most ambitious to date: building a community of 12 deeply affordable, energy-efficient tiny houses at 15 Overbrook Place in East Asheville. The homes will provide permanent living space for selected Asheville residents who earn up to 30% of the area’s median income, and the project is structured to enable residents to build equity over time.
“People are often housed into poverty forever,” Cantrell points out. “We said, ‘That’s not good enough: We really need to help people build wealth.’”
To achieve that while ensuring that the homes remain affordable long term, BeLoved came up with a highly creative approach.
“The homes will have equity accounts with an ‘appreciation trigger,’ rather than the homes literally taking the appreciation,” Cantrell explains. “A good portion of the monthly payment will go into the resident’s equity account, along with a percentage accounting for appreciation. Residents will be able to take the equity from their account when they leave and we move the next residents in at deeply affordable rates. Residents may also borrow from their equity to mitigate crises or for things like transportation and education, to help them move forward in their lives.”
Applications, she continues, “will be reviewed and placements determined by a committee of community members.” And though the initial project is expected to accommodate 12-24 people, “We expect to serve many more as this model expands through replication.”
The total cost for the project is hovering around $1 million; to date, the nonprofit has raised enough to fund the first home, with contributions from private individuals, local businesses, faith communities and neighborhood groups. Retired contractors, artists and engineers have joined hundreds of volunteers to offer their knowledge and expertise at no cost. The collaborative nature of the project, says Cantrell, is reminiscent of the barn-raising tradition, in which people worked together to help a community member get established.
“This is a really ground-up solution,” she says. “We just began leveraging all the gifts that were already here in our community circle.”
The 440-square-foot homes will feature locally made furniture, artwork, dishes and other essentials to give new residents a sense of community that affordable housing options don’t always provide.
“What we heard over and over was, ‘We want trees and land; we want to be able to plant gardens; we want a porch; we want a place that feels like a home,” Cantrell explains. “For us, it’s not just walls and a roof. I think that’s part of the real power in this: This is about dignity; it’s about a place of belonging and community.”
All three new developments — Key Commons, Transformation Village and BeLoved Village — are expected to come on line by next summer. In the meantime, hundreds of men and women who are currently living on Asheville’s streets gained a new ally: In November, Homeward Bound staffer Robert Stevenson stepped into a new role with the organization. Funded by an allocation of $150,000 over three years from the city of Asheville, Stevenson is helping bridge the gaps between Asheville’s homeless residents and other community members.
“You’ve got the city and the needs of the city, the housed, and then people who are also residents of the city that are staying outdoors, and both of those groups have legitimate claims and blind spots,” says Stevenson, who’s worked with Homeward Bound for more than nine years. “Starting conversations between them is really where I see myself.”
Rather than operating out of a formal office, Stevenson envisions one-on-one engagement with Asheville’s downtown homeless population. He’ll be available to assist folks in a variety of ways: driving them to the Division of Motor Vehicles to obtain identification cards, connecting them with mental health providers, and helping them navigate the deluge of paperwork and documentation required to apply for many city services.
“We do have some great services and resources in Asheville,” Stevenson explains. “But bureaucracy is bureaucracy, and the way that people move through systems isn’t always ideal and doesn’t always fit the places that people are in. I have a lot more freedom than somebody that works for one of the behavioral health providers here in town, or even someone that works at AHOPE, because the nature of their work leaves them confined within certain very specific roles.”
City officials and Homeward Bound staffers say they hope the new position will help de-escalate tensions between police officers and people experiencing homelessness. Stevenson says he welcomes the opportunity to intervene in nonemergency situations when possible, to reduce the number of arrests and address common grievances and misunderstandings related to homelessness.
“Folks don’t necessarily want to call the police; they don’t want to get someone in trouble,” he maintains. “They’re calling the police because they don’t know who else to call. I may not have an answer, but I’m at least going to come in and be someone you can call.”
Moving the needle
Ending homelessness in Asheville won’t be easy, Cantrell concedes, but she’s confident that the current efforts by BeLoved and other organizations will stimulate city residents’ shared sense of compassion.
“We believe that the people in the community are going to come forward and say, ‘This is what we need in Asheville, and we are willing to support it,’” she predicts.
“There’s a huge need, but it’s not like we’re going to have to do a big supportive housing project year after year,” he points out. “We do two or three really good ones over the next three to five years, and we’re going to put a huge dent in this problem. Five hundred and eighty? That’s not like Los Angeles County, where you have 60,000. This is an achievable goal.”
Editors note: This story has been changed from the version that ran in print to clarify that Robert Stevenson is an employee of Homeward Bound. Also, the number of people Homeward Bound has helped to place in residential units is more than 2,079.