Asheville – According to Mayor Esther Manheimer, it was likely the City of Asheville’s longest manager’s report, ever. The topic of conversation was what the city was doing about homelessness and quality of life in downtown.
The city’s Homeless Services System Performance Lead Emily Ball started with results from the city’s most recent point-in-time count of its unhoused population. All compiled, the count rose 21%, from 527 to 637 year-over-year.
The federal government requires these counts to be taken on any of the last 10 days in January. Using the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of literal homelessness, the city counted persons in eight shelters and three facilities that transition them to permanent housing. To count the number of people on the street, they gathered information from AHOPE, the Haywood Street Welcome Table, school system liaisons, the police department, and 16 teams of three persons each who walked the streets and beat the bushes.
The city used the count as a vehicle for registering more of the unhoused population with services. The city and county run a Homeless Management Information System not so much to prevent individuals from double-dipping, as to build capacity for government services by enrolling people in as many programs as they might need.
Along with trying to connect persons with services, the city administered a survey to collect demographic data. Participation was voluntary, and respondents were under no compulsion to answer all questions. Unsurprisingly, out of a total of 232 unhoused people (up from 116 last year) most respondents were single, white males. The unsheltered population included 47 families and three unaccompanied children, and it was believed that people of color were “disproportionally represented.” A large number were described as suffering mental illness or addiction.
Councilwoman Antanette Mosely asked for a breakdown of the last two categories by race. She recounted what somebody said at a recent meeting of the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville: that black people need only being poor to experience homelessness, but whites had to be poor and/or suffer mental illness or addiction. Because housing vouchers are available to persons afflicted by the latter, she asked if that program might be fundamentally flawed in a racist way. Ball pointedly replied, “That is exactly the right question to ask.”
Mosely also suggested the percentage decline of blacks in homelessness counts was likely a displacing function of vast increases in white homelessness, even though the number of blacks going homeless could still be increasing disproportionately. She asked if the city’s policies on homelessness were somehow forcing more blacks on the streets. Ball replied the city had conducted an analysis, and the demographics of persons receiving services tracked well with those of the homeless population, so it was concluded that the pertinent programs were not furthering disparities.
Explaining some of the strange trends in the era of COVID, Ball said that homelessness was up, but $2.4 million in federal CARES Act funds flowed into the area to address the problem. Shelter capacity halved, due to social-distancing and screening requirements, but non-congregate shelters emerged in response. Large shelter systems had to close smaller, satellite centers due to funding and staffing shortages, and some smaller shelters went out of business altogether. Then, mental health and substance abuse skyrocketed during the pandemic. A lot of new housing was also constructed, aggrevating matters more.
Of interest, during the point-in-time count, the shelters reported 155 vacancies. The reasons unhoused persons gave for not going to the shelters included thier excess in rules, fears about safety, wanting to stay with their people or pets, not wanting to take beds away from other people, and fear of COVID or other diseases. Ball added the city and its partners worked very hard to get the unsheltered population vaccinated; BeLoved Asheville, for example, took vaccination kits to encampments.
Councilwoman Sage Turner said she would like to see more point-in-time counts throughout the year, and Ball replied that would be labor-intensive. Both wanted to increase participation in the HMIS. Ball described the “best-case scenario” as all agencies participating in real-time and able to provide point-in-time data for any day of the year.
Following Ball, Marcus Laws, the homeless services director for Homeward Bound, spoke of the “outreach project for empowerment” at AHOPE. After a few minutes of what seemed to be glittering generalities, it would have been apparent to an outside observer that he was talking about damage control. While Laws accentuated the positive, Asheville Police Captain Michael Lamb provided crime statistics, but only to say that the crime was abating.
Lamb said monthly calls for service at the AHOPE property at 19 Ann Street dropped from 98 to 22 since December. He said analysts expected crime to be displaced into the surrounding neighborhood, but crime also fell over 50% in those areas over a similar period. Lamb kept giving kudos to turnaround artist Laws for involving the police in his program of teaching and modeling respect as well as accountability for oneself and one’s community. Many others chimed with similar praises for AHOPE’s restructuring following what City Manager Debra Campbell described as difficult conversations between city representatives and the facility.
Mosely said she had heard a lot of people comment about significant changes they had seen in the neighborhood. She added these people remained, “cautiously optimistic,” because they had seen things shape up elsewhere “when heat has been placed on the organization,” but only to have problems slowly creep back to old norms. She therefore asked if council could have quarterly updates from AHOPE. It was doable, and Lamb also invited members of council to the monthly AHOPE meetings that police officers attend.
Lastly, Campbell provided an update about “food sharing,” the term sounding so much kinder than the former “feedings.” Time was short, so Campbell said the city’s concerns were about cleanliness and trying to leave things better than one originally finds them. In response to public demand, the city convened a coalition of persons involved in food sharing, and the group is now developing guidelines. Contrary to rumor, Campbell wanted to be clear the city is not drafting any ordinances at this time.