Oak Hill Commons caps goals for 10-year plan to end homelessness

Ten years ago, the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee, made up of eight city and eight county appointees from a variety of organizations, embarked on an ambitious plan to end chronic homelessness in Asheville. Now, almost precisely that amount of time later, it is coming to fruition, with a final project that cty of Asheville Homeless Initiative Coordinator Heather Dillashaw hopes will reduce chronic homeless to a “functional zero.”

Oak Hill Commons will be a private housing development, a mixed-use facility meeting workforce rent levels that, Dillashaw says, looks to be completed by mid-to-late 2015. But its unique, and arguably most important, feature is the 24 units designated specifically for the “hard-to-house.”

Hard-to-house people, says Dillashaw, are a specific subset of the homeless that need closer attention and care: “They’re not maintaining and they’re still falling apart when they get into housing. Most folks who are experiencing homelessness don’t need this level of intervention.”

Hard-to-house people comprise about 10 percent of the homeless population. Asheville averages about 500 homeless at any given time, says Dillashaw, and of that number, 30-35 will usually be hard to house.

The nomenclature is not a random: There are well-vetted assessment tools used to determined the level of intervention a homeless person or family needs. Many organizations use a diagnostic device called the “vulnerability index” to measure the intervention level needed for a homeless person.

The index is on a 20-point scale, and each section adds points if the person meets certain criteria. The very first section, for example, is just general information, like name, Social Security number and age. If the person’s is older than 60, the form instructs the interviewer to add one point for that section. The index goes on to measure housing history, risks (recent hospitalizations, interactions with police and so forth), socialization and daily function (activities, family interaction, income, etc.) and wellness (diseases, drug and alcohol use, etc.).

Dillashaw makes no bones about what the index is scaling: “It used to be called the ‘tri-morbidity scale.’ It measures how close you are to death, basically. Most of these folks don’t have one thing. They have every thing: physical disability, mental disorders, addiction. Many — maybe even all of them — have survived severe trauma.”

Everyone who scores over a 16 on the index is designated hard to house; this alone qualifies applicants for one of the 24 single-bed units in Oak Hill Commons.

The project came about by a confluence of circumstances.

“Two years ago,” says Dillashaw. “We pulled together a hard-to-house housing summit and invited some national and state experts … to talk to us about working options in other places. One of the models they showed us was Moore Place in Charlotte, which had just opened at that point. We spent the day there, talked to the director and the folks that put it together.”

Despite the heavy government and nonprofit investment, the project is not a public housing development. It is being built and operated privately by Ward Griffin, owner of Biotat LLC (along with his partner, Luis Hellmund), which is developing the project. Griffin also owns Griffin Realty and Construction Enterprises Inc., the general contractor for the project. Griffin, a third-generation native of Asheville, says his part in the development was “kind of a long route around.”

Griffin works with the Haywood Street Congregation, a homeless ministry that feeds 350-450 people every Wednesday at the corner of Patton Avenue and Haywood Road. “My involvement led to people like me on that board to ask, ‘How can we facilitate getting members of this community into more permanent housing?’” he says. “At that same time, the hard-to-house committee was just being formed, and some people at Haywood told me about that committee. I started attending those meetings, and it just developed from there. I went without any expectation of there being a project, but just as somebody that was interested in serving that population.”

Both Dillashaw and Griffin are happy with the proposed site, which encompasses 3.7 acres off New Leicester Highway.

“It was a site that we had been looking at for several years,” says Griffin. “We were looking for a site to do some more of the more traditional affordable housing projects. … We feel like it’s a great site. It’s in great proximity to public transportation, shopping and other supportive services downtown, as well as being just a great central location for workforce folks.”

“It’s on the bus line,” says Dillashaw. “It’s right behind Ingles — the things that we know folks that need subsidy need access to. And it’s less expensive. The reality is, building downtown is incredibly expensive [and] harder to sustain because of the cost of construction, so getting it a bit off that main drag but still getting folks what they need is ideal.

“It’s great to have the private sector engaged because we can’t get this done on a nonprofit scale,” she continues. “The housing crisis that we face in Buncombe is never going to be solved in the nonprofit world — it isn’t anywhere.”

The hard-to-house units will be arranged in a single building, with a clinic and case management office on-site; case management will be handled by Homeward Bound of Asheville. There will be an additional 54-61 units with one, two or three bedrooms, arranged like any other apartment complex. Rents will be Asheville-standard workforce housing levels. The development will have 24-hour security, and neither Dillashaw nor Griffin has much concern about conflicts between the two populations.

“What is appealing to us is creating true communities, not communities where certain types of people are cordoned off into certain parts of town or certain types of neighborhoods,” says Griffin. “We’re hoping what we’re doing is a model for a more sustainable community that meets the needs of different income levels that gives opportunities to people who might not otherwise have them.”

“In my experience, it’s actually going to be more about the folks that are in [the hard-to-house units] rather than those on the outside,” says Dillashaw. “These are very vulnerable people who are getting beaten up out on the street and taken advantage of in significant ways, and so the security, for me, is about their protection.”

Dillashaw additionally believes the security will have a big role in supporting the hard-to-house tenants: “When we visited Moore Place, [where there’s] private security that work[s] in that building, it was clear those guards were as much social workers as they were guards. … They were really watching out for those that were there. The director said that’s a key part of it, that the folks that live there feel safe.”

Securing the hard-to-house doesn’t just benefit that population either: It helps the taxpayer as well. According to a presentation Buncombe County Health and Human Services made to the county commissioners on Sept. 16, the hard-to-house account for an estimated $2.3 million dollar price tag to the county per year. Much of this cost emerges from two sources: jail time and hospital visits. Buncombe County EMS alone spent $250,000 picking up hard-to-house persons in fiscal year 2014.

Jail time, which hard-to-house people serve mostly for low-level misdemeanors, is not much cheaper. Jail costs average around $107 per day, and two of the hard-to-house population accounted for over $58,000 in jail costs on their own.

Stabilizing this population, therefore, is beneficial on more than one level, says Dillashaw: “One, [the hard-to-house] get more well, so from a human dignity standpoint these folks are doing well. From a community standpoint, we’re all better. Those folks are no longer over-utilizing systems that are already overburdened, they’re not costing us at high level. And they’re not on the streets with all the misdemeanor and nuisance behaviors.”

Dillashaw says the goal is to reduce the number to a “functional zero, [which] means that we’re doing everything we can to provide resources, and if someone chooses to not have those resources, that’s their choice.”

But more, she hopes that Oak Hill Commons will spur more development of increasingly crucial affordable housing: “We need these other units. There has to be an increasing stock of affordable units. One of the things [Griffin] and his business partners do is that they don’t make credit and criminal background a necessary no — that’s something they work with, and that’s a huge barrier for families.”

As for the 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness, Oak Hill Commons, says Dillashaw, will serve as a fitting conclusion: “This is the last subset of folks who have been longtime homeless that we have not found a viable housing solution for. [Oak Hill Commons] will kind of put a cap on [the 10-year-plan]. I think [success] would look like an individual having a place to sleep every night that they can go to and be safe … and simply can sleep. If that can happen for even a few of those folks, then we’re in a better place.”

“The passion for me comes from not taking for granted the support network I’ve had the good fortune to have my whole life,” says Griffin. “That’s not something I’m entitled any more or any less than anybody else. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s a hell of a lot more fun to give a set of keys to a single mother of three that starts crying, while her kids run around asking, ‘Do we really get to live here?'”

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