Folks, Can We Discuss Asheville's Homelessness? - TribPapers

Folks, Can We Discuss Asheville’s Homelessness?

Photo by Jon Tyson.

Asheville – Editor’s Note: This was written by Asheville citizen Doug Brown.

Have you got a cup of coffee and a comfy chair? This is a reply to the Homeless Division regarding the January homeless meeting with DC consultants. I offer again responses… this time with several personal anecdotes about the homeless. I will approach this as a letter.

Dear Buncombe County Homeless Division,

You mentioned that “Housing First isn’t necessarily contrary to their (ABCCM, WCRM, Salvation Army…) work; it’s an approach that promotes independence in stable housing with needed supports in place and encourages pursuit of that housing as quickly as possible.” Housing First competes with local shelters.

A simple analogy is that I am a basketball coach and you are a basketball coach. You offer free Nike sneakers, court time, and a game schedule, and everyone gets to play—no strings attached. I offer free Nike sneakers, court time and a game schedule, but require my players to train, show up for practices, and that the best get the most playing time.   Who do you think young kids are going to gravitate toward? Your team, of course, and probably some who don’t play the sport but want the sneakers. But who do you think will build the best ball players with skills they can take into their futures? My team…ie. ABCCM, WRCM…; that is, shelters with a program that require stability, recovery, training and in turn earn their own housing/play time.

You comment, “It (Housing First) puts the person who’s without housing in the driver’s seat of choosing the path to stability that’s best for them.” Is this a realistic approach, economically or practically? As a coach, would you throw a ball out on the court and say, “Choose the path that is best for you to become a good player?” 80% of these “players,” who are homeless, do not know how to choose or what to choose; if they did, they would not be in their situation. Like young ball players, they need intervention—a program.

I scratch my head to think that a committee of a dozen or more “advisers” (HIAC) believe that “choosing a path best for them” is viable for substance abusers and the mentally ill to navigate or come to “on their own.” These are the 80% that soak up our taxes, grants, time, EMS services, create litter, and panhandle. Your rapid rehousing program works like a champ. This other 80% (mentally ill, addicted), however, is not there, and is it compassionate to allow them to figure out (choose) what path is best for them while they destroy their bodies with drugs and unhealthy contacts during the day, and then, with no obligations to learn the rules of the game (how to fit into society), they are handed a key to a room to safely continue their unsuccessful habits?

You are correct. Shelters with programs do not allow pets: dogs, snakes, etc., nor do they cater (let the client “choose”) to each individual’s perceived wants. But then, neither do a basketball team, a business, a family, a church, or a community. The individual who wants to belong to these groups is expected to work to fit in, learn, and contribute. A member is free to go their own way. But no one is obligated to provide for that individual’s own way, which they “choose.” The point is that the shelters and the beds are there. The 2022 PIT count stated that 28% of shelter beds were vacant. And here is why many homeless people “choose” to live outside and “choose” the homeless lifestyle. Here are some of my personal accounts:

Outside of Hope, a young girl tells me, “I went to WRCM, but I had to do chores.” And once a worker “yelled” at me for interrupting while she was talking to someone else. –  (like a coach might yell to a player to get them on track).”  So she dropped out. This healthy, young girl could have been working anywhere if she wanted to. What makes dropping out possible? Free options like A Hope and Housing First that enable those to do less, until they are offered something they choose that fits their lifestyle.

Carl (not his real name) shares the same storage unit area as I do. He knows I ran for city council. I tell him, “I’m not going to let you sleep in public parks if I get elected.” “That’s right,” he replies. “The homeless should not sleep in parks.” “Where do you sleep?” I ask. “I’m an eagle scout.” I stay away from the homeless camps. “I drink too much, but I know how to get by—where to get a shower, coffee, a candy bar, and meals.” His family lives in Raleigh and makes good money, and Carl has a college degree. “It’s a choice,” he tells me as he crams another duffel bag of who knows what into his crowded storage unit that somehow he can pay for.

Betty (not her name) fights for custody of her baby. Was homeless.  says, “It is so easy.” “You get a phone or a tablet, clothes, camping gear, and people feed you.” I got tired of it and wanted to get sober and be with my baby. She quit drugs and alcohol “cold turkey,” has a stable job, and is on her way to getting custody. She tells me that she would not live in a housing complex filled with homeless people if she wanted to get sober and break her bad habits.
Pam (not her name) shops in Harris Teeter and tells me she was homeless for two years: hung out with her boyfriend and a group of others, watched the gear while they panhandled or wandered.  She said she stayed away from the drugs and stayed pretty much sober, and she finally got tired of the life and moved into low-income housing and runs an online business so that she doesn’t have to declare income that would jeopardize her $25/month rent (did I hear that right? $25/month?  Is that possible?

Have you seen the social media clips of homeless people living in LA, SF, or another Housing First city admitting how “easy” it is to live on the street? They have $600/month vouchers along with food, food stamps, drugs, shelter when they want it, and income from panhandling. The January meeting with the DC consultants didn’t talk about this. Don’t talk about the tons of trash the camps create. The cost of EMS to the taxpayers who choose to work while the mentally ill and addicted are allowed to “choose their path of recovery” I’ve been on PIT counts and met the same “drummer guy” from Mississippi—still living under bridges, choosing not to use shelters, choosing not to overcome addiction or get treated for mental health treatment. You’ll find him by a sculpture on a corner downtown. To him and many others, a shelter, a program, recovery…  is too restrictive – just give me a key to a refurbished hotel room.   Tell me this isn’t so bad, dear city leaders of Asheville. Tell me this isn’t so, seasoned advisers on HIAC. Because here is your most vulnerable citizen:

It is the woman I meet getting off her shift at Ingles who answers my question, “What is the one thing you would like to see improved in Asheville?” And she says, “The homeless situation.” “We have to do something to help the homeless situation.” And then she pauses and says, “But, you know, there are a lot of services for them.” I have to work full time to pay for my car, my apartment, my child’s daycare, etc.; it’s hard. No one helps me. “Who is going to help me?”
That is your most vulnerable population. Those who are working hard, taking responsibility for themselves, and contributing by providing labor or services to our city They aren’t being given the luxury to “choose” if they want to go to work each day, pay their rent, get up, and do it again and again. And they pay their taxes to pay for social services for the “homeless.” Does that give you a picture of who you should be mindful of when you grow your Homeless Division staff and the services to the “needy”?

You ask me to attend the February 9th HIAC meeting… I attend online because the time isn’t convenient to attend in person. I’ve listened to hours of HIAC. I’ve listened to meeting after meeting of the National Alliance (the consultants) preaching the five steps of the Housing First approach while 20 members don’t ask hard questions, don’t do their own research, and accept the dogma of a non-profit out of DC that preached HUD’s “nationally accepted model.” Yes, our local shelters have seats at the table. But they are not the voice at the table. The city paid $73,000 for a consultant to preach rather than consult. And at the January meeting, the consultant advised the city to consider sanctuary camping?

Feb 9th…  I’ll watch a replay again of the 60-90 minute meeting. Would HIAC members spend 20 minutes reading this letter? I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll listen to the meeting, and I’ll give you my feedback. Deal?    Free consulting from a citizen in Asheville, not from Washington, D.C. And will you read my less than 250-word (I promise) report at your following HIAC meeting?