Misinformation, inadequate communication and unsubstantiated fears have scuttled plans to offer temporary shelter for homeless people at a North Asheville church.
Last year, congregants from Grace Episcopal Church on Merrimon Avenue traveled to West Asheville to volunteer for the Safe Shelter program. This fall, Grace Episcopal was gearing up to offer its own space as a potential host site. Safe Shelter is a collaboration involving Grace Episcopal and two other churches — Trinity United Methodist and Grace Covenant Presbyterian — as well as a limited liability company called Counterflow. Together, they work to establish and operate a short-term shelter for underserved members of the area’s homeless population at rotating locations in Asheville. In addition to space in the churches themselves, the program explores other potential sites such as vacant or underutilized buildings. Besides providing temporary lodging, the collaborative’s long-term goal is to help clients move into permanent housing.
In September, however, the Rev. Milly Morrow decided not to offer Grace Episcopal as a potential site for the shelter. Citing intense backlash, Morrow confirmed that “We’re not going to host it at Grace.” The Rev. Mike Reardon, Grace Episcopal’s associate rector, will still be part of the core leadership team, however, and congregants will be encouraged to volunteer.
The backlash began with a private Facebook group and quickly spilled over into phone calls, emails and a tense meeting between church representatives and group members in late September. The ensuing fallout grew increasingly heated, leading Morrow to conclude that “The reality is these folks will be safer outside of North Asheville.” Instead, AHOPE Day Center in downtown Asheville will host Safe Shelter for the next six months.
Many of the neighborhood’s concerns were based on inaccurate assumptions about both the program and the people it seeks to serve.
Longtime Grace Episcopal congregant Katherine Kaderabek, who was involved in last winter’s effort, says she’s proud to have been part of it. “I volunteered on a weekly basis and got to know the residents very well, shared meals with them and played UNO with them. They’re beautiful people. They’re vulnerable. … They’re not bad people at all.”
It’s impossible to know the extent to which more direct communication by various parties might have avoided at least some of the misunderstandings. But in a larger sense, this saga also illustrates how social media’s broad and instantaneous reach can facilitate the spread of misinformation — and, in the process, perhaps undermine efforts to address pressing needs.
The idea behind Safe Shelter borrows from Room in the Inn, a longtime local program that provides temporary shelter for women at rotating locations in participating houses of worship, as well as case management services. The Safe Shelter collaborative coalesced out of groups involved in the Code Purple initiative, which provides emergency beds during extremely cold weather. The Safe Shelter partners came together to address gaps in the currently available services for homeless people.
One of those partners, Counterflow LLC, was established by Asheville residents Anna and Dan Pizzo in April 2022, based partly on their prior experience working with other local organizations.
The following month, the Dogwood Health Trust, as part of an agreement with the City of Asheville and the Buncombe County commissioners, provided funds to hire the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, to assess the needs of the local homeless population and make recommendations for meeting them.
Winter Safe Shelter, as the collaborative was originally known, was established that fall and funded by various entities including the City of Asheville. The seasonal initiative, which had a few paid staffers in addition to church volunteers, ran from last December through March of this year.
Meanwhile, at a Jan. 25, 2023, joint session of City Council and the county commissioners, the consultants presented their findings, which included the need for more shelter beds. The recommendations aim to reduce “unsheltered homelessness” by 50% in two years. An interim report released by Winter Safe Shelter the following month stated that as of that point, 71% of exiting guests, including 100% of families, had transitioned to permanent housing. Although the number of beds was small, the guests stayed an average of just 16 days. Over the next year, the group projects that it will serve 170 people, according to the interim report.
Accordingly, on Sept. 15, Asheville and Buncombe County each allocated $875,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act money — $1.75 million all told — to fund additional short-term beds for one year at both The Salvation Army and the Haywood Street Congregation as well as Safe Shelter. That funding will enable Safe Shelter to transform last winter’s seasonal program into a fully staffed year-round operation.
The funding agreement between the city and Safe Shelter calls for 10 beds for families and 10 for individuals at rotating locations. When the shelter opened Nov. 6, two families filled nine out of the beds reserved for families. Several beds for individuals were filled by people “identified with more urgent needs,” Pizzo tells Xpress.
North Asheville resident Tara Maria Hackett belonged to a private Facebook group called The North Report that has since been shut down. On Sept. 25, she posted a photo of a man sleeping on the sidewalk in front of Grace Episcopal, wrapped in a blanket with a pair of shoes beside him. The caption underneath it took issue with the idea that the church would receive thousands of dollars to provide beds for homeless people while neighborhood residents would be tripping over folks sprawled on the sidewalk. Hackett’s post included Grace Episcopal’s email address; she also called and emailed the church herself. Asked later what her thoughts were when she saw the sleeping man, Hackett told Xpress, “You’re gonna bring beds up here and homeless people and you’re getting public funding, you should be taking care of them. … I just showed concern, and that’s really all there is.”
Meanwhile, in a lengthy post on the thread, North Report administrator Honor Moor wrote: “Why are we moving resources into North Asheville when we have tried-and-true resources at WNC Rescue Mission, ABCCM who know how to handle the chronically helpless addicted? Why would we move this destitute population near two schools and a new small children’s park with million-dollar houses?” Later in the same post, she wrote: “Next, the traveling needle vans. We are going to see all of what EAST and WEST is getting.”
Moor is a co-founder of the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety. Created in October 2022, the grassroots group advocates for higher police pay as a way to address its concerns about crime, mental health, drug use and the homeless population.
When asked what had prompted her comments about syringes, Moor responded: “I have no information. The North Report administrators do not believe that needles should be dispensed in residential neighborhoods all over Asheville.” She declined to disclose the names of the other administrators.
In the wake of Hackett’s North Report post, Rev. Morrow says she received emails from 12 people, as well as phone calls. And while a couple of the emails supported the church’s participation in Safe Shelter, most did not. She says she told those folks that the man in the photo is a church member and a safe person, adding, “I suggest you go down and just meet him.”
A subsequent email exchange between Morrow and Hackett over several days cuts to the heart of the dispute. Morrow shared those emails with Xpress.
Hackett claims the church never responded to her calls, but in fact, Morrow emailed her within hours, writing, “Feel free to call me regarding your concerns about the man who is on our property” and providing her phone number. When she didn’t hear back, however, Morrow wrote again two days later, saying “It is inappropriate and causes division to spread misinformation out of fear, based on lack of complete information.”
In response, Hackett wrote, “You keep those on church property following the letter of the law and keep the public sidewalks clear in front of that property, or I can assure you, you’ve not begun to see concern.” To which Morrow replied, “Are you threatening me?”
That same day, Hackett wrote back, “I’m promising you that I will continue to inform and rally my neighbors, neighborhood businesses and my community to keep it safe from illegal and suspicious activities.”
Morrow then said she needed more information about the “illegal activity that you fear we are aiding. … I am afraid I cannot be of any help if I don’t know exactly what you are asking me to manage and control.”
Hackett responded, “I am going to need you to stop harassing me with these passive-aggressive, bothersome emails with questions about help that I did not request. … Do not reply again.’”
And to that, Morrow tells Xpress, “I didn’t say anything.”
A hard meeting
The miscommunication continued face to face on Sept. 28, when Morrow met with Moor, another North Report group member whom Moor declined to identify, and Ben Scales, a longtime congregant and former senior warden at the church.
“It was really a hard meeting — just really, really hard,” Morrow said later, and her and Moor’s deeply conflicting accounts bear that out.
According to Moor, Morrow “decided to surprise us and bring an attorney to our meeting, which made no sense, since we were there to understand the church programming.” However, both Scales and Morrow say he’s never been employed by either the church or Morrow and that hiring an attorney who’s a congregant would violate church policy.
Moor also reports that “We asked what population they wanted to serve and they said all populations, including the drug addicted and chronically homeless.”
“That is absolutely not true,” Morrow tells Xpress. According to the terms of the ARPA funding agreement, she explains, “The specific community that Safe Shelter works with are the most marginalized communities: LGBTQ, BIPOC, families.”
Moor also claims she was told that the church allows overnight camping on its property.
“That is a lie,” counters Morrow. “We had a church member [the man in the photo] sleeping on the property; he was also cleaning up every day. He came to church on Tuesdays and Sundays. … He occasionally slept in the back because he felt safe there. I did not call the police on him because he was not violent or disruptive: He was helpful.” And though she says church leadership has called the police to remove individuals “a couple of times” based on unsafe behavior, they “take a lot of time to get to know folks before we tell them to move on.”
During the meeting, Moor says she was also told that the church was “going to be serving meals soon.”
Morrow, however, says, “That is a lie: I wish we did. … That is literally my job — to feed the poor,” she points out, adding, “It’s sad that I’m not doing that.”
Reardon, Grace Episcopal’s associate rector, said later that when people hear about a potential shelter, “They imagine we are dealing with the most severe cases of mental illness. And those people deserve shelter too. But the services they require are not what we’re capable of providing.”
Safe Shelter isn’t the only local program serving the area’s homeless population. But the collaborative is designed to reach people who may fall through the cracks. Because there are separate shelters for men and women, for example, couples can’t stay together. And since boys older than 13 aren’t allowed in the shelters serving women and children, they’re sent to the men’s shelter on their own.
According to Counterflow’s website, this year’s rotating facility will be fully staffed, including “a dedicated community health worker to support guests with permanent housing and other needs.”
The collaborative obtained a lease to operate the temporary shelter at AHOPE and acquired a temporary use permit from the City of Asheville, says Pizzo. Grace Episcopal’s decision not to offer shelter space, she says, was one factor in the program’s current plans.
As for drug use, notes Anna Pizzo, “Safe Shelter will not distribute needles to guests, and we will not permit any illicit substance or alcohol at Safe Shelter locations.” That is partly because there will be children in the shelter and partly to ensure the safety of the staff and other guests, she explains. Both The Steady Collective, a local nonprofit, and Buncombe County Health and Human Services operate needle exchange programs, but Morrow says Grace Episcopal has no plans to partner with either of them.
Neighbors concerned about needles and drugs might be surprised by the program’s actual clientele, Pizzo points out. “The majority of the previous Safe Shelter guests would not be recognizable as homeless if you were to come across them in daily lives.” Last year’s guests, she says, included someone who moved to Asheville for employment but whose intended living situation fell through and they couldn’t afford to keep staying in hotels. Another person had a young child and had left a domestic violence situation. In yet another case a family with children moved to Asheville because of the father’s job but had been living in their minivan. There were also several elderly women who’d been living in their cars.
The Grace Episcopal dispute underscores the challenges involved in balancing the need for transparency and community outreach with the complex logistics of finding sites for such facilities and jumping through the requisite hoops to get them up and running.
Some of the neighbors felt that information was being withheld. “There was no community outreach” about the shelter, Hackett told Xpress. Moor, meanwhile, said she didn’t learn much from the contentious Sept. 28 meeting with Morrow and Scales.
Safe Shelter, however, says the nature of its work requires scouting multiple potential sites that may not pan out. “We’re not going to keep every neighborhood abreast of all the things we explore that don’t necessarily materialize,” Pizzo explains. “As soon as things are confirmed, we make an effort to share that with the community.”
For her part, Morrow describes the situation as “a conversation, moving parts, puzzle pieces.”
There are also significant financial considerations. Under the terms of the American Rescue Plan Act, the program has to have a fiscal agent that commits to paying employees and contractors, says Emily Ball, homeless strategy division manager for the City of Asheville. And while Trinity United Methodist is taking on that role this year, all three partner churches, notes Morrow, had to figure out “how we are going to do that in a way that we have mutual responsibility … so that one church doesn’t end up holding the fiscal responsibility and be unable to do that.”
As for the concerns about the use of public money, Reardon rejects the idea that Safe Shelter and other “people in homeless services are getting wealthy off of the services they provide and that they, in fact, don’t want to see the problem ameliorated or even solved … because it deepens their pockets.” And to folks who don’t understand how grant money or federal funding works, he says flatly, “I don’t receive a cent from this project.”
Once Safe Shelter’s plans are finalized, the church leaders will use sermons and letters to the congregation to encourage congregants to volunteer. But from the program’s point of view, says Pizzo, it’s premature and counterproductive to disseminate limited and possibly inaccurate information while the plans are still so fluid.
Face to face
At first glance, the dispute between Grace Episcopal and the Facebook group members seems a clear-cut case of how social media can effect change: A concerned resident encouraged like-minded people to contact the church, they did, and the church declined to serve as a host site.
Viewed through a different lens, however, the incident highlights the potential for harm that can result from jumping to conclusions — and then broadcasting them via social media.
In the first place, there were no beds for the homeless at the church. And at that stage, notes Morrow, “We weren’t even sure if [the temporary shelter] would be hosted at Grace.” In any case, this year’s Safe Shelter program hadn’t even started yet.
In an Oct. 9 email to Xpress, Moor explained that her Facebook comments were “written before we had any knowledge of which population would be served. … After speaking to a parishioner privately, I personally think it’s a fantastic program.”
Meanwhile, Morrow says there’s nothing unusual about homeless people sleeping on church grounds. “It happens in every church,” she maintains, and the only way to prevent it would be to conduct 24-hour surveillance. But that’s not something she’d be open to doing, “considering my position as a Christian.”
Both church leaders and some members of the congregation, notes Morrow, know the sleeping man seen in the North Report photo “because we took time to get to know him, and we’re working with lots of different people to try and stabilize and get care. Because people at my church chose to do that. Because they weren’t afraid.”