Low-barrier shelter may fill temporary housing gaps

ANCHOR members
DREAM TEAM: A coalition of mental health workers, homeless service providers, addiction specialists and more make up a new nonprofit, ANCHOR, aimed at addressing homelessness and its causes. Pictured from left are Amy Upham, Sally Stein, Robert Stevenson, Colleen Barcus and Derrick Hall. Photo courtesy of Upham

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.

A PLACE TO BE: Kenneth Jackson says that he has resorted to camping behind local businesses until he can find temporary housing for both himself and his dog, Rio. The proposed low-barrier shelter would provide homeless residents and their animals a place to stay. Photo by Brooke Randle

“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.

Coming together

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.”

Next steps

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.

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9 thoughts on “Low-barrier shelter may fill temporary housing gaps

  1. Jerry Hinz

    SO— Asheville seems to be the place to go- if you want to be accommodated… Did I read the city had up to $10 million
    and said much was federal – (my taxes paid to federal) as if it did not matter that much– not Asheville tax money. So the churches give out tents
    for free- and the food is at various places around town – a list is posted at one church– and some homeless stay in hotels- maybe even- with swimming pools- ?
    and now we have low barrier–
    places coming… I guess “we” are buying a hotel for homeless – arent we? ? –and then you say “The homeless grew by 78% if I read this right? OF COURSE IT GREW — YOU ARE MAKING ASHEVILLE
    THE HOME OF HOMELESSNESS.. hELP THEM UP- YES- Get them access to ehalth care including mental counseling- and have a set time- that they
    can do better – for themsleves- or encourage them to find another place… please… I just talked to a homeless person at an intersection with a sign-
    – he seemed very intelligent- but – I guess with all we have to offer- Asheville is the place to be ..
    he seemd capable of many good jobs- and I guess nothing suits him- so Asheville is the place for him.– We want to help — WE NEED HEALTH CARE FOR EVERYONE-
    but we also need programs that get the homeless to work– not to forever- take advantage of the great life here in Asheville… for free. Some absolutely need our help-
    Many need a hand up- and when successful- great- keep helping— Some need a hand out.. Very few need to live off Asheville – forever- and tell their friends to get here quickly..

    • Mike

      Another “Top 10 List” to which Asheville can aspire.
      Top 10 Cities Most Welcoming to the Homeless.

        • Mike

          If you don’t mind losing your spots on all the other “Top 10” lists, I guess it would not be bad.
          Personally, I like the other “Top 10” lists.
          If you want to become the San Francisco (or Los Angeles, or Austin, or Venice Beach) of the South, you can follow their homeless policies down the drain.

  2. Ed Rothberg

    These kinds of solutions to the homeless crisis have been tried in other places. The result is that the homeless population increases dramatically because you are attracting the homeless to the area by providing these services. Please check out what has happened in Los Angeles and Austin before you leap into this quagmire.

  3. sarah jane thomas

    Is what is being considered for low-income people in Asheville somewhat like the European hostel model?

  4. independa

    you know what would really help the “housing gap” in Asheville? Stop catering to homeless drug addicts/dealers, Lower taxes, putting a stop to the money being thrown at single issue activist politicians, and investing in a safer community by empowering the police departments.

  5. reuben W dejernette

    The idea and preliminary concept do have merit, it is the plan and process that has everyone scratching their heads. Is there a completed plan / proposal for this endeavor…that has been DOCUMENTED ? There are people who can use the help and others that have the where-with-all to be self sufficient, however they decline to get involved and they have their reasons. So, for the likes of persons like Kenneth Jackson, who find themselves out of a house, my simple questions is “Where was your last home address ? ” If you identify Asheville as last address, why do you not try and ask your local friends for assistance ? There are many jobs within the local area that can be obtained, there-by enabling you to contribute to rent / food / other expenses incurred by your local friend. If your last home address was not Asheville…why are you here ?

    We have projected the cost to operate this endeavor to be in the neighborhood of $3 Million per year. So, there is no revenue generated from operating this center, there would be staff to provide on-site medical and mental health services and include a range of specialists from existing organizations and agencies, lets not forget staff to monitor the intake i.e. weapons / drugs / aggressive behavior. Existing organizations will be able to provide staff either volunteers and/or already paid for by grants and/or city funding, this is a plus !!! All the rest of the staffing and services that will be provided will have to come from somewhere. Do we expect they will be furnished at no cost ?

    The City’s capability for spending federal coronavirus relief expires in 2024…that is if we haven’t spent it all before then. So using the year 2024 as a benchmark….that would be an appropriate time for an additional supplement of our County and Property Taxes !!!

    WE HAVE GOT TO BE SMARTER THAN THE AVERAGE ROCK IN THE ROAD !!!!

  6. Robert

    I’m all for providing (or helping to provide) shelter for everyone who wants it and who will make an effort to deserve help. As the brother of someone with a history of dependency/homelessness issues, I see the issue from all angles. But while we’re rushing to help the homeless, let’s also remember to protect the health and public safety of all community members from all the dangers that lurk–unchecked development all over the county, poorly considered annexation of land next to established neighborhoods such as Richmond Hill…Let’s especially remember to safeguard those who pay property taxes (mine went up by 40% this year) and who have invested time, money, and energy to build this place.

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