Becoming part of the homelessness solution yields reward


This article was published by The Citizen Times on March 27, 2022. See the original article here.

Throughout Asheville and our larger community we cross paths with people who are homeless every day: along roadways, downtown, in our neighborhoods, and outside stores and restaurants.

Each of us acts or reacts in different ways: a smile, a frown, avoidance, a kind word, a few dollars, food, or offering a cold drink.

In Asheville, AHOPE, a daytime shelter operated by Homeward Bound, provides these individuals support and services needed every day – that kind word, respite from the weather, and a bit of hope to move them from the streets into housing.

I became aware of AHOPE15 years ago during a visit and was enlightened about who and how AHOPE served the community.  The homeless and near homeless receive a hot cup of coffee, a sandwich, a warm pair of socks, a shower and a chance to clean their clothes. It is their post office, safe haven, storage lockers for their personal belongings so they don’t have to walk the streets with shopping carts like in other cities.  On any given day 200 different folks enter AHOPE’s front door and more than 2,100 used these services last year.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, at the beginning of my retirement, I began volunteering weekly at AHOPE – looking for a hands-on way to help some of the most challenging and at-risk citizens of our community. I came in on Thursdays and staffed the kitchen – making lots and lots of coffee, putting out bread and PB&J and, if available, donated baked goods to offer to the clients. Immediately, I was struck by the varied backgrounds and conditions of these folks: Michael, the artist who had dreams that were never realized; Jill, the domestic violence survivor who fled from her home to escape her abuser; Dwight, whose mother killed his father in front of the family; Carolyn who gave birth while living on the streets and had her child taken by DSS. They each have their own unique story, but all involving trauma.

When I had made enough coffee to keep the clients satisfied, I ventured over to the mail room to offer a hand to other volunteers who checked and distributed mail for AHOPE guests. AHOPE serves as the Post Office for hundreds of our community.  They receive bills, notes from friends, letters from family members wondering if they are dead or alive, new IDs, checks, and packages. It is as important to them as my daily venture to my mailbox; perhaps more.  

Getting and keeping clients connected is a key focus of AHOPE. Individuals are logged in when they come to AHOPE, and if they are still homeless after two weeks, they become “clients” and are interviewed and assessed to determine housing needs.  AHOPE also works to prevent homelessness. Staff will call family members or friends to see if they can mend fences so the individual can remain housed.

In 2021, Homeward Bound staff coordinated 94 leases with private landlords and partnered with more than 75 landlords to provide stable housing.

AHOPE also serves as the connection point to other community services: medical, dental, legal, veterinary for their pets, mental health and substance use services, as well as helping them get drivers licenses, and other documentation so they can enter a shelter or receive other services.

And most importantly, AHOPE is the portal/entry for folks re-starting their lives. A new beginning. AHOPE’s staff is the hub of this re-start. It’s the first step to moving an unhoused individual into a home of their own.

Homeward Bound has been using the national approach of Housing First since 2006 and has moved more than 2.300 people into homes, and 92% have not returned to homelessness.

Housing First’s method prioritizes providing permanent housing to people experiencing homelessness, thus ending their homelessness and serving as a platform from which they can pursue personal goals and improve their quality of life. This approach is guided by the belief that people need basic necessities like food and a place to live before attending to secondary needs, such as getting a job, budgeting properly, or attending to substance use issues.

And while challenges and criticisms pervade,  I choose to be a part of the solution by giving time to the most vulnerable people in our community, our homeless neighbors, via AHOPE.  I am rewarded when Ms. E comes each Monday to collect her mail from her post office. She lives in her car but hopes for more: Her own home.

David Bailey is retired CEO of United Way of Asheville and a Homeward Bound, AHOPE, volunteer.