Last year, the city of Asheville began using the Ramada Inn River Ridge Plaza in East Asheville as a non-congregate shelter for some of its homeless population. Since last April, 116 people in total have found a place under the motel’s roof.
That respite is nearing its end. Local housing agencies and nonprofits have been referring those living at the Ramada to other housing before Thursday, March 31, when the city’s contract with the shelter operator ends.
As of March 28, 31 rooms at the Ramada were still occupied and 13 planned to vacate over the next three days, says Emily Ball, Asheville’s homeless services systems performance lead. Of the remaining 18 rooms, 9 had confirmed housing but weren’t ready to move yet and 9 were still figuring out where to go by March 31, she explains.
“I’ve been really deep in the weeds on exit planning for folks there the last few months,” says Ball. “I’ve been on-site most days and meeting with people, trying to workshop what their options will be.”
Once the shelter closes, California-based for-profit developer Shangri-La Industries will convert the Ramada into permanent supportive housing, as outlined in a Dec. 8 arrangement with the city. Step Up on Second Street, a California nonprofit, will provide supportive services for the new residents.
Meanwhile, Ramada resident Eric Hall, who leads the shelter’s resident council, tells Xpress he’s been trying to keep tabs on where his friends are being placed. In early March, he said everyone shares the concern of “people being added back out to the population that don’t have housing.”
As March 31 approaches, Hall feels bittersweet about his neighbors at the Ramada moving on — some of whom had lived together for nearly a year and created camaraderie. “The hardest part of this whole move, or transition, is losing each other,” he says. “It has become a family atmosphere.”
Hall expresses gratitude to Mayank Patel, the motel’s owner. “We’re grateful that we’ve had all this time to be here,” he says.
In April 2021, the city contacted the Asheville-based nonprofit Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness about managing temporary homeless shelters. Sunrise is primarily a peer support organization for people with mental health challenges or who are in recovery from substance use, explains Sue Polston, its executive director. She notes that “it did go a little bit out of our scope to do this project.” However, she says the nonprofit wanted to meet the needs of the community.
Sunrise employees went to campsites at River Ridge, near the Bleachery Boulevard Walmart and underneath the Interstate 240 overpass of Lexington Avenue to transition unhoused people into the available shelters. Over the course of four days, the team moved people to the Ramada and a Quality Inn, says Polston.
The original plan was for people to stay at both hotels from April 19 through the end of June, explains Ball. Instead, the city extended Sunrise’s contract three times. “A lot of that extension was primarily related to the concurrent effort that the city had to purchase that [Ramada] property for developing a [low-barrier shelter],” she says.
(That effort, which began with the city signing a contract to buy the Ramada in May, fell apart in the face of neighborhood opposition and a lack of support from partners including Buncombe County and the Dogwood Health Trust. The city decided to transfer its purchase rights to Shangri-La and pursue a permanent supportive housing model instead.)
In May, the Quality Inn asked Sunrise’s residents to leave due to some destructive behavior; they were moved to an Econo Lodge. “I think it was not a fit for Quality Inn,” Ball says. Eventually the group consolidated at the Ramada in September as more residents were placed into housing.
Few unhoused people came to the Ramada after those initial move-ins. Sunrise made some referrals from Adult Protective Services, Buncombe County jail and the county Emergency Medical Services Post-Overdose Response Team.
“It’s been a hell of a ride since day one,” says Polston. “We’ve done some amazing work.”
The Ramada will eventually provide permanent supportive housing, a long-term housing solution for the chronically homeless, explains Jerry Kivett-Kimbro, rapid rehousing director of Homeward Bound WNC. Individuals may be eligible for permanent supportive housing if they have a disabling condition, such as a serious mental health or substance use issue, that has been a deterrent to stable housing.
But the Ramada residents now leaving the motel likely won’t come back. They are primarily eligible for rapid rehousing, which provides short-term rental assistance for at least three months and comes with three to six months of supportive wraparound services, Kivett-Kimbro explains. Funding for that support comes from city and state grants.
Individuals are eligible for rapid rehousing if they have the ability to earn an income and continue maintaining their rent after financial assistance ends. The program “is intended to get people back up on their feet, get them stable,” he says. But being slated for rapid rehousing does not guarantee a place to live; recipients must still find landlords who will accept the rental assistance.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that the multiple agencies within a municipality cooperate to determine which individuals will be slated to receive housing funds, says Ball. Organizations participate in bi-monthly “coordinated assessment meetings” to discuss people to place in housing in Buncombe County.
Sunrise; Homeward Bound; the faith-based Salvation Army, Haywood Street Congregation and Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry; Eliada, which works with young adults up to age 25; and Helpmate, which works with survivors of domestic violence, can all refer individuals to Asheville’s CAM, says Ball. Homeward Bound, Eliada and Helpmate can then enroll individuals in housing programs that provide rental assistance.
Prior to CAM meetings, Ball checks in with the three agencies and “asks how many referrals they’ll be able to take that week, so we’ll know so we know in advance how many opportunities we have to get people slated for a housing program,” she explains.
Sunrise designated several employees to act as housing navigators for Ramada residents, each assisting 20 people, explains Polston. That team worked with every resident at the Ramada to acquire identification required for housing, like birth certificates. Ball calls it “getting the ducks in a row for folks there, so that if a slot is available that is a fit for them,” their documents are ready.
But day-to-day at the Ramada property, Sunrise also had “a lot of fires to put out,” says Polston. That included connecting individuals to mental health services, letting residents know when local faith communities had donated meals and coordinating laundry services.
Where are they now?
While Sunrise will no longer operate at the Ramada after March 31, the city extended its contract with one staff member from the nonprofit through the end of April so it can continue to help individuals find housing, Polston says.
Not every Ramada resident has yet been referred to housing “because we haven’t had that many slots available in housing programs,” explains Ball.
“It’s not reality that we won’t have some folks who are unsheltered when they leave there,” she continues. “But I am working, honestly, as hard as I can to be sure that that number is as small as possible.”
Polston concurs that some Ramada residents may not transition into housing. “I said this at the very beginning — and I tried to let my staff know — at the end of this, there’s going to be a handful of people that just want to go back to the street,” she explains. “There’s nothing that you could have done any differently. That’s just what they’re used to. That’s what’s comfortable to them.”
Another function Sunrise serves is connecting unhoused people with loved ones. Through private donations, the nonprofit has been able to provide Greyhound Bus tickets to 5 people to go home, Polston says.
As of December, Sunrise also assisted seven people with getting into a detox program, says Polston. (Detox and rehab are classified as temporary destinations by HUD, and thus not considered housing, according to Ball.)
The Ramada is projected to provide 50 units of housing for homeless veterans and 50 units for people who are chronically homeless; however, those figures could be different in either direction depending on the architect’s final plans, Ball says. Rooms will be renovated into “efficiency apartments” intended for one single adult or a couple, she says.
Upon the completion of renovations, Step Up will send a program manager to the site but hire case management and peer support teams locally, explains Ball. Renovations are expected to be completed in the fall, after which residents can move in, Ball says.
“It’s certainly been a big learning experience for a lot of us,” Ball tells Xpress. “I am hopeful that it is giving us a good foundation to build on in the future.”