Hope Despite a Rise in Homelessness

Mary Jo Powers, Executive Director

Every year for 24 hours on the last Wednesday in January, nonprofit and community leaders fan out across the state to conduct a “point-in-time count” of our neighbors experiencing homelessness. This happens in shelters, transitional housing programs, on the streets, and at campsites.

The numbers just came out and the total homeless population in Buncombe County rose from 509 in 2016 to 562 in 2017. Because of federal rules, the count includes people staying in transitional housing as homeless. There were a total of 222 individuals in transitional housing the night of the 2017 count, including 178 veterans. That means that 340 people were staying in shelters, in cars, or on the streets.

Homeward Bound housed 407 people experiencing homelessness in Buncombe and Henderson Counties in 2016. We use the nationally-recognized best practice model of Housing First: moving people into housing as a first step, then surrounding them with an appropriate level of support. Besides providing rental assistance, our housing case managers help them address employment, mental illness, substance abuse, physical health, and other stability issues.

Over the past 11 years, 89 percent of the more than 1,750 people that Homeward Bound has moved into housing have remained housed.

Given that Homeward Bound moved nearly 400 people into housing last year, what does this point-in-time count tell us about Asheville and Buncombe County? First and foremost, we have a severe shortage of affordable housing. In recent years, we have had a functional 0 percent vacancy rate in affordable housing. Coupled with a very large gap between wages and housing costs, it is a tribute to the efforts by the city, county, VA Medical Center and private service agencies that the number of homeless persons is not significantly higher.

The lack of affordable housing also affects homeless veterans. There are currently 23 unsheltered veterans in our county, 20 of whom have been assessed and have a housing plan. They could be in housing immediately, but we have not yet found available units for them.

With the recent passage of an affordable housing bond and changes in city planning and zoning, a number of affordable housing projects are underway or in pre-development. But housing isn’t built overnight. It will take some time to see an effective difference.

At Homeward Bound we are planning for the future with great hope. We have developed strategic initiatives during the past six months to address many of the issues that are now reflected in the point-in-time count.

One goal is to offer a homelessness prevention and diversion program through our AHOPE Day Center. Using the Housing First model, we’ve moved many people out of homelessness, but to end it, we need an effective intervention to prevent homelessness before people enter the system.

Overall, we prioritize ending chronic homelessness in our housing programs. Our new housing option for 18 of the highest-needs, chronically homeless persons who previously had difficulty staying in housing just marked its first year and the housing retention rate for this program is 100 percent. Based on its success, we are initiating conversations with developers to create at least 100 additional housing units, which should end chronic homelessness in our community when built or procured.

The annual point-in-time count is a valuable tool for everyone concerned about homelessness. For those of us working to end homelessness, the count results allow us to review our programs and priorities, strengthen our best practices, and examine the systemic forces that create homelessness.

With the best practices of assessing each person experiencing homelessness, using the Housing First model followed by appropriate support, and a community-wide commitment to substantially increase our stock of affordable housing, we have cause for hope and renewed dedication to ending homelessness.

Click here to see the original version of this article, printed in the Asheville Citizen-Times.