By Leslee Kulba- Back in 2005, the City of Asheville adopted “Looking Homeward: The Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness.” Twelve years later, the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee presented council with a “Five-Year Strategic Plan on Homelessness,” which was adopted by way of their consent agenda. The new plan will focus on bringing the chronically homeless and homeless veteran populations in the county to “functional zero” by December 2017.
The plan is but a sketchy outline calling for more partnerships and better collaboration. The rest of the bulk is graphs, the summary of a survey conducted by UNC-Asheville, and a glossary where one learns “functional zero” is attained when, “every newly-identified homeless veteran in Asheville-Buncombe is connected with an appropriate housing intervention within thirty days and is permanently housed within 90 days after signing a Declaration of Housing Preference form, unless the veteran elects to enter a long-term, service-intensive, transitional housing program.”
“Strategies and Action Items” in the plan include identifying by name each person in the two target subgroups, and getting them entered into the Homeless Management Information System. Healthcare for the homeless would be addressed by “facilitating and supporting the dissemination of educational materials across all supporting agencies as it relates to utilizing healthcare coverage, understanding benefits and connecting members of the homeless community to healthcare services.”
Initiatives would advocate for the construction or dedication of 100 more affordable housing units, preferably close to transit. Strategies would include “landlord recruitment” and working to get low-income units in all newly-constructed multi-family residences. Agencies serving the homeless would partner with employers to provide jobs that are “fair and equitable” and pay a “continual living wage.”
The presentation highlighted the fact that the point-in-time count conducted for the original plan found 293 chronically homeless people, and the latest found only 72. Since 2008, 2,297 homeless people in Buncombe County found placement in some form of housing; the HIAC gives the program credit for 1,550 of the placements. Councilor Cecil Bothwell questioned the numbers, and it turns out 72 is the number of “unsheltered” homeless people counted. The total count is 509, up slightly from 502 when the program began. Over the same period, the number of homeless veterans rose from 126 to 196, but the chronically homeless population declined from 169 to 72.
A small, but concerning portion of the problem is homeless children. Of 249 homeless people participating in the UNC-Asheville survey, 55 had children. Thirteen respondents had four or more children. The problem is sufficient to warrant a liaison to the HIAC from Asheville City and Buncombe County schools. Five households were described as having no adult head of household, but the definition of “child” extends to 24-year-olds.
The survey collected demographic data, and found the homeless population was mostly Caucasian, with six respondents saying they “don’t identify” with any of eight “Race/Ethnicity” categories. Over two-thirds had graduated from high school, and ninety reported having attended some college. Contrary to urban legend, only three had at least a master’s degree. While only four respondents identified as a nontraditional gender, 78 respondents checked as a priority the creation of special homeless quarters for them.
When asked what they would like to change about the shelters, very few jumped at questions highlighted by the surveyors. Only 29.7 percent ranked pet-friendly shelters high, and an abysmal 14.1 percent wanted secular shelters. Only 34.9 percent wanted the shelters to keep their doors open longer. The five-year plan intends to capture those who are refused admission to shelters because of intoxication with alternative facilities.
The questions about wants and needs had no surprises. For example, 60-80 percent checked as a high priority medical coverage, including dental, and optical. More telling was the number of people needing assistance to bridge the bureaucratic barriers preventing them from becoming self-sufficient. Between 50 and 70 percent of respondents checked as a high priority getting help navigating the system to get ID, restore revoked privileges, or deal with outstanding warrants and fines.
Calling for better coordination, the data analysts note only 19.1 percent of respondents thought agencies providing services for the homeless were well-coordinated. 13.4 percent thought government leaders were sufficiently involved; and 13.1 percent thought the area offered sufficient low-income housing.
In analyzing the commentary portion of the survey, the students noted “major themes” included a desire to be treated with humanity. “Several spoke about housing as a ‘human right.’” And another “several respondents discussed the reasons for the housing crisis, as it relates to the increasing development, condos, and tourism in the area.”
One respondent captured the Catch-22 of homelessness, writing, “JOB = income – Haircut – hygiene – place to go – shoes – Basic human needs – clothes – references for applications – address – ID’S – Good MAPS.” He then offered, “Thank you all – agencies and organizations for a ‘chance’ – TAX CREDIT Voucher to offer if hired???”