Volunteers operate Code Purple emergency shelter for six nights

SERVANT HEARTS: From left, Amanda Kollar, Lee Thomas and Melanie Robertson of Trinity United Methodist Church volunteered for six days at an emergency Code Purple shelter. Photo by Jessica Wakeman

For more than half of nights in November, the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Coalition called Code Purple: an emergency protocol, triggered when temperatures drop below freezing, to increase space in homeless shelters beyond normal capacity. But for all of those nights, people sleeping on Asheville’s streets had no officially designated place to go.

The two Code Purple overnight shelters recognized by the city of Asheville — Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry for men and Salvation Army for women and children — didn’t begin participation in the voluntary program until Dec. 1. In response, Trinity United Methodist Church at 587 Haywood Road operated an interim volunteer-run emergency overnight shelter Nov. 25-30.

Asheville leaders referred most questions about Code Purple to Kevin Mahoney, a volunteer who works as a peer support specialist for the Mountain Area Health Education Center, and Dan Pizzo from ANCHOR, a nonprofit collaborative of homeless services and mental health providers. Asked why Code Purple only began Dec. 1, Emily Ball, the city’s homeless services system performance lead, wrote that “traditionally and ideally Code Purple begins on the first cold night of the season, but staffing challenges at participating agencies have delayed the start date this year.”

Melanie Robertson, director of family ministries at Trinity,  said church leaders had previously decided they wanted to participate as a Code Purple shelter. That opportunity came on Thanksgiving. “We were called [by Pizzo] and asked if we could be an emergency facility because the city was not quite set up yet,” she says.

The all-volunteer effort included Trinity parishioners like Amanda Kollar, Mahoney, Pizzo, volunteers who are employed by Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness and community paramedic Claire Hubbard from Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services.

“It’s the fastest response I’ve ever encountered in my travels here in Asheville,” says Mahoney. “Everything fell into place, and everybody who needed to do something was on board.”

He said the need for an emergency Code Purple shelter “hit a nerve. I’m glad it did. …. November’s cold, we’re in the mountains — this is not a surprise.”

Asheville reported 547 people experiencing homelessness following its participation in the 2020 Point-in-Time street count, conducted in January.

Out of the cold

EMS and the Asheville Police Department transported people to Trinity during the six nights, as is routinely done when Code Purple is called. Volunteers said the number of guests increased nightly. Two people came to the emergency shelter Nov. 24, when the church operated a test run; 22 people stayed in the shelter, including one child, Nov. 30.

Melissa arrived Nov. 29 with D., her 12-year-old daughter. (Xpress is using their first name and first initial, respectively, out of respect for their privacy.)

She said Western Carolina Rescue Ministries had first referred her to Haywood Street Congregation; when they arrived, she was concerned by behavior she saw outside.

“I turned right-quick back around and said, ‘I’m not taking my kid into that,’” Melissa told Xpress. “We went to Salvation Army, and when they told me they couldn’t take me in, I think I had a small nervous breakdown. I started crying. I was, like, I just don’t know what to do. I’ve been to every shelter in downtown Asheville. I didn’t want her to freeze.”

The security guard at Salvation Army brought blankets outside to Melissa and D., for which they expressed gratitude. Melissa then decided to call for help.

“I — literally crying — called 911 and explained to the operator, ‘Look, I’m out here trying to find shelter,’” she said. “‘My child — if I don’t find shelter, she’s going to freeze to death. Look at her. She’s 95 pounds.’”

“I was crying,” said D. “I was upset.” She said she was so cold that she couldn’t feel her hands.

Melissa said a police officer arrived and contacted EMS, which she said called shelters around Buncombe County.  A paramedic called Melissa back and brought the family to Trinity.

In Trinity’s emergency shelter, they reconnected with D.’s father, Leemon, who arrived Nov. 26. If he had not been able to get space in Trinity’s emergency shelter, he said he would have called 911 and asked to be taken to an emergency room. “My plan was to stay on the street corner long enough to get frostbitten and then go to the hospital,” he told Xpress.

Leemon expressed anger at the city. “Asheville city leaders have got to make somewhere Code Purple for the rest of the year,” he said. “They need to get on it right now. If Asheville wanted to help finance right here [at Trinity], I’m sure these nice folks would oblige. They’ve done this out of their own pocket. Somebody in this church with common sense said, ‘Let’s open our doors. Let’s keep people from dying, regardless of what Asheville, Buncombe County says.’”

Operations

For the six nights the emergency shelter operated, Trinity opened its doors to guests at 5 p.m. Upon arrival, volunteers asked them to initial a document agreeing not to bring drugs, alcohol or weapons inside. (Masks were mandated indoors; proof of vaccination status was not required.) The church ensured one volunteer per eight people in the shelter each night, said Robertson.

Homeward Bound donated 21 mattresses for the shelter’s usage. Guests were separated by gender overnight, with women sleeping in one of the church’s classrooms and men in the fellowship hall, and left the premises by 8 a.m.

Robertson credited the nonprofit Asheville Poverty Initiative’s 12 Baskets Cafe for donating several warm meals, as well as cereal and sandwiches; other meals were donated by individuals. She said Trinity plans to continue discussions about how to assist with Code Purple while accommodating other church activities.

“We’re recognizing that to make it sustainable, we’re going to have to build a bigger volunteer base,” said Robertson.

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