Housing for everyone — no exceptions.
That’s the model a coalition of as many as 35 organizations is recommending to the city of Asheville as they seek to house people who find difficulty in meeting the criteria to stay in existing shelters. Newly formed Asheville nonprofit Accessing Needed Crisis and Critical Help Outreach and Resources, or ANCHOR, is proposing a low-barrier, high-access shelter within the city that would forgo many of the usual rules for tenants.
Different organizations currently tackle aspects of homelessness in Asheville. The Western Carolina Rescue Mission, Salvation Army, Haywood Street Respite, and Helpmate provide overnight care, Homeward Bound has a robust array of permanent supported housing, and the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry has expanded transitional housing for women and children through its Transformation Village. But the addition of a low-barrier facility, argues ANCHOR founding member Derrick Hall, may help the city fill in the gaps of traditional homelessness services.
“There are so many reasons why shelters might be used or not used by people. There are a lot of groups that don’t necessarily find the existing shelters to be safe,” says Hall, the director of adult enhanced services at the nonprofit Family Preservation Services. “This would be a shelter that intentionally removes barriers to entrance, but it’s also a shelter that works to be very intentional in being a compassionate place and a nonjudgemental place where people can feel that they can arrive.”
The proposed shelter would serve roughly 100 people per night, provide on-site medical and mental health services and include a range of specialists from existing organizations and agencies. Startup costs could reach $6.5 million, with annual operating costs of $3 million, and would initially be funded through some of Asheville’s approximately $26.1 million in anticipated federal coronavirus relief funds.
ANCHOR suggests its approach would lower emergency room visits and jail intakes and reduce the number of people sleeping on public property. Some homeless service providers, however, question the safety and feasibility of the shelter model.
A growing concern
While the overall number of unhoused people in Asheville fell by about 4% from 2020 to 2021, the number of those residents who slept on the streets and in encampments rather than in a shelter grew by 78% over the same period, according to the city’s annual Point-in-Time survey conducted in January. The survey recorded 116 unhoused people, over a fifth of the city’s total homeless population.
Some of that increase can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, as shelters limited capacity or required a negative COVID-19 test for entry to protect tenants and staff, according to a city press release. But Hall argues that the rules and requirements at facilities around town are also keeping some of Asheville’s homeless population from seeking shelter.
“In a low-barrier shelter as we’re conceiving it and we’re proposing it, if we see a barrier, take it down. That’s how it works,” says Hall. “As an example, there would be no such restriction on whether you’re currently using [drugs] or not.”
Tenants would be admitted regardless of if they had an ID or wanted to cohabitate with a partner or spouse. A part of the proposed shelter would allow pets and might also include outdoor kennels for animals that become aggressive. Some regulations would remain: Weapons checks would be routine at the point of entry, and drugs and alcohol would not be allowed on the property.
Fifty-one-year-old Kenneth Jackson, who has been homeless since January, says that he hasn’t found temporary housing that would admit him and his companion, a 95-pound German shepherd named Rio.
“Rio makes a world of difference in my life. He gives me a good sense of purpose,” Jackson says. “He sleeps in the bed with me. There’s dog hair, but we stay clean and well fed. He’s my whole world.”
Jackson says that he has resorted to camping behind local businesses until he can find housing for both himself and his dog.
Hall adds that while some barriers come from shelter rules, such as an ID requirement, other exist in the minds of unhoused people. Members of disenfranchised groups or the LGBTQ community may not feel safe in traditional shelters or be put off by religious messaging. Others may fear authority or judgment if they are currently using drugs or alcohol.
Collaboration is also key to the proposed shelter, says Sally Stein, a retired psychiatric nurse, licensed clinical social worker and ANCHOR co-founder. Because unhoused people often face additional problems such as mental health issues and unemployment, she explains, no one organization can guarantee their stability.
To succeed, Stein continues, the shelter needs to be staffed by community partners, including Homeward Bound, Vaya Health, the Mountain Area Health Education Center, Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness and others with a range of expertise and experience. City of Asheville and Buncombe County staff would also be part of the team.
ANCHOR would oversee the operation, while Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness would be the fiscal manager for any funds that the shelter receives and contract with other organizations. Staff members would be trained in overdose response, CPR, trauma responsive care and would participate in ongoing equity work, including receiving training from the Umoja Health, Wellness and Justice Collective. County emergency medical services would be available on-site 24 hours per day in an effort to reduce emergency room visits.
On the fence
But not everyone is convinced that the new shelter would solve homelessness in Asheville. Scott Rogers, who heads ABCCM, says that while his organization is a part of the conversation, he’d like a clearer definition of the city’s needs and expectations for the shelter before throwing his support behind the idea.
“Just because somebody says, ‘I don’t like the rules at this shelter or this place,’ shouldn’t be the criteria for whether or not we need another shelter,” he explains. “I think it ought to be based on the need.”
Outside of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rogers argues that serving Asheville’s homeless population has become more difficult because of increases in drug use and the resulting or concurring mental health crises. He also says that while Asheville’s chronically homeless population has stayed roughly the same for the last few years, summertime brings travelers and those who “choose a homeless lifestyle” for social or political reasons.
“That population swells tremendously between April and October in Asheville,” Rogers says. “I think we really have to be careful not to try to solve a problem that only temporarily exists because of the pandemic, and we have to try to solve the real issues of both mental health and substance abuse and alternative lifestyle choices that are putting people in the place of not having a home.”
And Asheville City Council member Gwen Wisler voiced her concern about the city getting involved before a May 11 closed session that she said was to discuss the potential purchase of a shelter property. While she acknowledged that government should play a significant part in fighting homelessness, she argued that the city was unprepared to take on the “lead agency” role represented by the shelter.
“No one wants the city’s parks and open spaces taken over by homeless camps,” Wisler said. “However, the city has no or very little expertise with running a shelter or providing wraparound services.”
Both Hall and Stein say that low-barrier shelters have proved to be safe in communities that have built them and do not lead to an increase in drug or alcohol consumption.
“The bigger concern for me might be that it might increase the number of folks that end up in our community because they’ve heard good things about what’s going on. I think that might be an unintended secondary problem,” says Stein. “I don’t know what kind of responses we will have; what I can assure you is that if ANCHOR is involved in the high-access shelter, they will make sure that the outcomes are being followed and we’re tracking who these people are, where they came from.”
Many details about the proposed shelter have yet to be determined, such as whether the shelter building would be newly constructed or upfitted from an existing property. Wisler also pointed out that the city hasn’t identified a continuing revenue stream to support shelter operations once the window for spending federal coronavirus relief expires in 2024.
Emily Ball, who leads Asheville’s coordination with community homelessness organizations, says that the structure would need to be located on a transit line to ensure access and transportation to other services in the community. “We also want to ensure a shelter location would have enough space for both beds and on-site services, like medical and behavioral health care,” she says.
The city plans to release a request for proposals for the work and seek input from the community about how the shelter would be run over the next few months. A presentation is also scheduled to go before Asheville City Council in July.
With that work ahead, Stein thinks that getting the low-barrier shelter off the ground will still take months of planning and development. She estimates that, if approved, the shelter would likely not open until sometime in 2022.
In the meantime, Stein says that getting both homeless service providers the community on board with the project will be her focus. “We need to prove to our city and our constituents that this really works and saves money and helps people,” she says.