Hopes rise for low-barrier shelter under revamped homelessness team

MAKING PROGRESS: On Dec. 4, Emily Ball, City of Asheville homeless strategy division manager, updated a joint session of Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners about implementing the National Alliance to End Homelessness consultants' recommendations. Photo via YouTube/City of Asheville

After years of false steps, it seems the City of Asheville and Buncombe County are on the same page about addressing homelessness: They’ve agreed that a low-barrier shelter is a top priority.

The community has numerous shelter options, including housing for veterans at Veterans Restoration Quarters at Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry or emergency shelter for survivors of domestic violence at Helpmate. Each has specific rules: Generally, sobriety is required, and men and women must be separated (meaning couples can’t stay together, and boys over age 13 are separated from female family members). Additionally, pets, a source of companionship for people, are not permitted. Most shelters require some sort of official identification such as a driver’s license or military ID. For some people, these rules present too many barriers, and they remain unsheltered.

Alternatively, low-barrier shelters have fewer rules: Typically, no weapons are allowed on the premises; and no drug or alcohol usage is permitted on-site. But families and couples can stay together and have their pets nearby. Within limits, those under the influence can still have a place to sleep. (When temperatures drop below freezing, triggering a Code Purple, area shelters waive many of their rules, becoming de facto low-barrier shelters.)

“Every community that has any amount of unsheltered homelessness certainly needs a low-barrier shelter,” says Homeward Bound CEO Carl Falconer, who took the role in November.

Homelessness services providers say providing shelter is not one-size-fits-all, and a low-barrier shelter would close gaps. “People who are unsheltered are so varied in who they are and what things that they’re dealing with in their life, including a lot of trauma,” Falconer says. “It really becomes imperative that we have a way to allow everybody to be sheltered that we possibly can.”

A low-barrier shelter for people who are unhoused is a key component to cutting homelessness in half in two years, according to a National Alliance to End Homelessness report from January 2023. Yet the community has struggled mightily over the years to open one.

What’s different this time?

Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Board of Commissioners convened at a Dec. 4 joint session to hear updates on what will be different this time around. Established in 2010, the Asheville-Buncombe Continuum of Care, also called CoC, is officially being restructured in March with the goal of operating more effectively.

The CoC is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program that guides the system for addressing homelessness in a community. (It doesn’t provide services itself.) A community has to have a CoC in order to receive federal funding  to address homelessness. Asheville-Buncombe CoC received $1.9 million in its most recent funding cycle.

One of the major points raised in the 2023 NAEH report was a lack of a collaboration between the local municipalities and participating organizations, such as homelessness services providers. Currently, the City Council and the County Commission each appoint eight members to the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee, which doubles as the CoC board. Those appointments aren’t chosen by the community and therefore aren’t necessarily representative of the community they serve. Under the new CoC, the membership body will elect the board. (CoCs are self-governing, and their performance is tracked by HUD.)

“The history in our community is a lot of folks and organizations doing a lot of good and very hard work, but not at a strategic system level,” explains Emily Ball, the City of Asheville’s homeless strategy division manager. The NAEH report listed the creation of a new CoC Board structure — one not situated under the city or county, and one empowered with decision-making authority — as a top priority.  The draft charter — the program’s first charter —  for the CoC suggests one nonvoting liaison from the Council and the Commission be on the board.

Ball says that restructuring will create a framework that the community hasn’t had before. “I think we’ve had so much historic confusion about who is responsible for what, who has the ability to take what action, how do we make decisions about resources and interventions,” Ball says. She says she’s optimistic about the new structure, adding, “This has tremendous potential to impact our community long term.”

In the fall, based on a recommendation in the NAEH report, Buncombe County hired Lacy Hoyle as its first homeless-program manager. “We want to do it right,” says Hoyle, who is also the project manager of the proposed low-barrier shelter. “We want to do it in a way where the population that we’re trying to serve will get the best possible chance to get the services that they need, and where the community that we’re serving will have the best possible chance to feel like this is an effective endeavor, and they’re going to be safe.”

Currently, the draft charter permits the CoC to have 17 board seats. Ball says a nominating committee has tried to involve as many stakeholders as possible. As of Jan. 19, 28 organizations submitted applications to be members, as did 110 individuals, Ball says.

The membership body will elect the new board in March and adopt a charter at its first meeting, Ball says. Then City Council will be asked to dissolve the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee.

Hoyle encourages community members to file applications to join the CoC. “It’s a good way to be informed, be involved and to have your voice heard about what we’re doing about this issue,” she says.

The roadblocks

Residents have heard discussions about the need for additional shelters over and over. For example, the city’s proposal for permanent supportive housing in East Asheville at the former Ramada Inn fell apart when a California-based company, Shangri-La, defaulted on its loan and the property went into foreclosure.

The low-barrier shelter planning team outlined what it would like to offer in a low-barrier shelter: be open for intake around the clock, allow pets and nontraditional families, and not require sobriety. “I wouldn’t say [those decisions are] solidified, but we’ve decided what we’d like to see,” Hoyle explains.

The team also would like to include space for partner agencies to provide services on-site, such as medical and mental health care. Providing those services on-site would reduce the need for shelter guests to travel elsewhere.

One unknown is where the low-barrier shelter will be located. “We are looking at sites, and a Realtor is also looking at sites at this point,” Hoyle says. “But we don’t have any specific information about any sites right now.”

All recommendations for a low-barrier shelter will be presented this spring, Hoyle says. The goal is for it to open by Dec. 24, which is when funding for additional beds at Salvation Army, Haywood Street Congregation and a shelter for families at AHOPE is slated to end.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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3 thoughts on “Hopes rise for low-barrier shelter under revamped homelessness team

  1. indy499

    Wow, sounds great. Come and go as you wish. Drunk and/or doped up ok. Bring your dog. Services on sight so no need to travsl. And “typically” guns are not allowed.

    All decided except the location? I’d suggest next to Brownie or Esther’s house.

  2. Hiram

    I believe that any citizen has the right (and possibly a duty) to oppose having this in their backyard. The YIMBYs are welcome to it…

  3. Mike Rains

    To share the burden more equitably, the next low barrier shelter should be located further out in the county. I suggest looking at areas around Swannanoa, Leicester, Candler, and Fairview to name a few.

    For the argument that a shelter needs to be close to services in Asheville, I believe we could provide transportation service (Mountain Mobility bus type perhaps) to and fro several times a day. Asheville Transit provides bus service to Black Mountain regularly (I never understood this route), so locations east would already be supported with transportation.

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