Asheville's homeless strategy division has invited the public into a three-part educational course that dives deep into the actual causes of homelessness, the array of solutions at play and how we, as individuals, can play a critical role.
Today's guests are Emily Ball and Debbie Alford, two-thirds of the city’s homeless strategy division. We talk about the prevailing myths around homelessness and the contradictory evidence. We also talk about two permanent housing developments—remodeled hotels now known as Compass Pointe Village—expected to make deep and visible impacts to Asheville’s chronically unhoused.
The city's lunch-hour Homeless Learning Series continues with sessions Nov. 9 and 16 inside Pack Library.
Today's episode is the first in a short series this week on combatting homelessness. Our next episode looks into the new Compass Point Village project with leaders of Homeward Bound.
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Emily Ball: I think the pandemic relevant to homelessness did the same thing that it did relevant to many other equity issues, which is that it put us all in crisis and it exposed some longstanding structural problems in our society.
And that's not unique to Asheville. That's across the world, really. So I think in our community, Two things happened. One, we had this real increase in need, of course, pandemic driven increase in need. So I would posit that even for us in this room, like everyone's mental health and substance use got harder in the pandemic.
So the need increased and at the same time services decreased because service providers had to contract a bit to be sure they could maintain their operations, keep their staff safe, keep their client base safe. And so we had a perfect storm of more need, fewer resources available, and that sort of contributed to an increase in unsheltered homelessness.
But additionally, the only known indicator of rates of homelessness in a community is housing cost, and housing costs have skyrocketed. In the last few years certainly partly because of the pandemic. So we've, we had this real increase in homelessness, this real increase in the unsheltered situation in particular because of those two things.
Matt Peiken: So you're getting some things that Debbie talks quite a bit about in the classes and I guess, spoiler alert. The major cause of unhoused people is the lack of affordable housing. If you were to distill down your three part classes into that sentence, that's it. But you touched, Emily, on some other factors that also played a role because of the pandemic.
And I guess it might muddy the waters, too, in terms of people's understanding of what leads people to be unsheltered. There's the overarching element of affordable housing or lack thereof but what happened during the pandemic that Exacerbated some of the other conditions that keep people unsheltered or lead to being unsheltered
Debbie Alford: Yeah, so I think specifically during the pandemic we all experience that level of stress somewhere in our lives And folks that are at risk for homelessness are folks that are living in poverty or doubled up for economic reasons.
And so doubled up means that they are, couch surfing somewhere or there's two or three families living under the same roof. So doubled up more than one family scenario under one roof for economic reasons. So those populations were particularly at risk and for folks that were already Living in poverty or living in that at risk situation had an increased level of stress in their life, and we know that increased level of stress produces trauma.
It produces a trauma response and all of us and for those folks that are living already in a state where they're trying to meet their basic needs, there's increased trauma. And so, we talk about in the Understanding Homelessness series about those being precipitating events. Really difficult life events that make a person more vulnerable, whether that's domestic violence or child abuse or loss of a job.
There's all kinds of things that could be precipitating events to that. Experience of homelessness.
Matt Peiken: I thought one of the most penetrating elements of your class that you taught is really communicating that Anybody or most anybody could be one or two, unpredictable elements away from that situation themselves.
Debbie you talk in your course about some of the factors that people believe are not only leading to being unhoused, but lingering in staying unhoused. What are some of the elements that you think are common myths that might be if not leading factors or contributing factors, but become factors after the fact that people become homeless.
Debbie Alford: I think one of the most common things we hear when talking to folks is that substance use and mental health disorders lead to people becoming homeless, and when we review research from Greg Colburn about homeless rates linked with these things, along with homeless rates linked to the availability of affordable housing.
We see that in areas of the country that are similar to Asheville the rates of substance use and homelessness are not aligned. So what that leads us to know is that folks. In housing have substance use problems and folks without housing have substance use problems. It's not that substance use leads to homelessness.
I certainly know successfully housed business people in our community that have Mental health disorders and substance use in their lives and in their personal experience, and they have not experienced homelessness.
Emily Ball: I think it's such a spiral also, it is awful to live unsheltered Anywhere in the world and including in our community and you're so vulnerable to the elements you have a lot of safety risks people get assaulted really regularly It's hard to maintain your belongings if you think about if I have a difficult day Maybe I want to go home and have a beer after work if you amplify unsheltered
And it's really difficult to break out of that if you don't have any safety or stability on a nightly basis.
Matt Peiken: Talk about some other elements in part one of your course that is really steered toward busting through some myths around it. So what are some other things that you talk about?
Debbie Alford: We talk about our data, what our point in time count shows about population in our community experiencing homelessness.
So when we look at our numbers from our last pit count point in time count, which was in January, 2023, we know that a quarter of the folks surveyed We're chronically homeless and we talk about the different types of homelessness and Chronicity is the folks that have been outside unsheltered or sheltered literally homeless for The longest amount of time and have some sort of disability.
So that's a federal definition it's 12 months of continuous homelessness or four episodes of homelessness in three years, and that time totals 12 months of literal homelessness.
Matt Peiken: And you also talked about how the chronic homelessness is a minority percentage of homeless. I think you said 25 percent of the unhoused are chronically unhoused.
I would think a lot of people would be surprised that it's that low. Because they see only what they see, right? So what else are you talking about that plays into. Misunderstandings about either the causes or what keeps people unhoused?
Debbie Alford: Yeah, we address in that presentation some of the frequently asked questions.
And it was interesting in that first session, there were several consistent questions. What about people who move here from other areas of the country or other areas of the state was a big one.
A second one was what are we doing about. People panhandling and the thing with folks moving into our community everybody's moving to Asheville people that want to live here. It's beautiful. We've got a lot to offer. It's a fun vibe. There's artists, people want to live in Asheville.
But what we know is that in the survey and the point of time count, the majority of people experiencing homelessness in our community. are actually from Buncombe County or a surrounding county. And just as I would go to Raleigh or Durham for a doctor's appointment if I needed it. Folks from our surrounding counties with fewer resources perhaps are coming into our area They're already, Western North Carolina Residents coming into Buncombe County to receive those services because we do have them
Matt Peiken: so to be clear that and that's something you did address that because Buncombe County and Asheville in particular is Is rich with services for the unhoused and people who are addicted and other psychological, mental issues that people from throughout Western North Carolina come here because of those services that they don't offer in some of these more rural counties.
Debbie Alford: I think that's right. We are the urban hub. in our area of the state. And so people are going to go to where the resources are within reason. I think what we see is that people are trying to get reconnected with family and don't really want to stay here, but they Came here because we have the services.
The other thing, the other element that I don't touch on as much in the class is that we have a large veteran population here because of our medical center, our VA medical center, and we have what's called a grant per diem program that is specifically for veterans. And so veterans are referred here from other areas to fill that program.
Emily Ball: I think that's all exactly right. We often hear that if you build it, they will come concern. And I think it's important to differentiate between that and the fact that Asheville is a regional hub in a rural, a relatively rural region.
I always talk about how I grew up in Madison County and I grew up Coming to the pediatrician in Asheville and going to the Asheville mall to shop and going to church in Asheville And that's normal for rural counties around Buncombe County So I think certainly we do see folks who lose housing in those surrounding counties who come to Asheville But as Debbie said they often want to get back home They're not trying to stay in this community, but that is different from you know someone in Kansas who heard about services and so has Come to Asheville for that.
I don't think we have much of that occurring.
Matt Peiken: There is a popular myth or at least a popular sentiment I've heard from business owners and others saying they bus people here that other counties and Law enforcement are busing people here. I've had that debunked by people in law enforcement But can you speak to that you're on the ground and you're doing point and count you're talking to the unhoused here Talk about that element
Emily Ball: Yeah, definitely people do come here on buses without housing that does sometimes occur, but that's very different from a Concerted effort from another community to ship people without resources into our community I don't think that's occurring and I would encourage anyone in our community if they suspect that if they can get more information And share that with us.
We would be happy to follow up, but I don't believe that's occurring. We also get those calls from other communities. I've been contacted by Spartanburg and Rutherfordton saying, Hey, we heard that Asheville is shipping homeless people here. You have? Absolutely not. And I, I think anytime that we go to a national conference, every community is saying the same thing.
So I think it is a myth. It is helpful to debunk that myth.
Matt Peiken: So talking about other communities, are we more pronounced in what we're seeing with our issues and problems?
More people on the streets more mental health issues compared to other cities? Is there quantifiable data around any of this? What are you hearing from your colleagues and peers in other cities?
Emily Ball: I think yes and no. I think every community and very consistent themes across the country that the unsheltered population has increased in quantity and also in acuity.
Just people are sicker. As we come out of the pandemic it's been very hard for us to recover as a country. So I think this, the same increase that we're seeing here, communities across the country are seeing, we're certainly not unique in that. Where I think we are a bit unique is again, that housing costs are the primary driver of rates of homelessness and housing costs have increased across the country, but certainly in communities like Asheville the increase has been dramatic in the last couple of years.
And so if you look at another community, our size that has more. Available, affordable housing, you don't see that same increase in unsheltered homelessness, but that's the difference maker.
Matt Peiken: Debbie, we talked about how in part one of your course, it's really about breaking through myths and establishing that unequivocally affordable housing is the key driver of homelessness and the unhoused community here.
What are you trying to do in part two of your course?
Debbie Alford: Part two is really. a lot of meaty in depth information about the continuum of care and how we as a community are responsible for creating a structure that helps individuals resolve their experience of homelessness. So it's not about creating a system that's going to end all homelessness and we're never going to see homelessness again because we know that Folks are going to become homeless, unfortunately.
But it's about making that experience rare, brief, and a one time thing for an individual family or an individual person.
Matt Peiken: Along those lines, talk about what encompasses the continuum of care. From what I understand, it's a mix of churches, non profits, other maybe governmental agencies.
Define for us who is in our continuum of care here.
Debbie Alford: Oh, everybody is. I talk about this in the class, like everybody is a stakeholder in this because homelessness affects those of us that are housed and it affects those of us that are unhoused and experiencing homelessness.
Matt Peiken: And that's one thing you talk about in part three, which I thought was really interesting.
And I, I think this is where the rubber hits the road a little bit because people can be empathetic, sympathetic from a distance, but then, Oh, I have to get my hands dirty in this. You want me to be involved. You want me to volunteer time, even what you were talking about in your course about how to just interact with the unhoused from.
everything from give them a smile to give them resources, maybe help them in some active way. Maybe this is my cynicism here, but I would venture to say most people who even would define themselves as being. On the cause, saying, I sympathize, I don't demonize, I don't think the unhoused are evil people trying to wreck our city, but Getting involved is a different thing.
What do you think has to happen, or what are you seeing happening in terms of people, or not seeing, in terms of people getting involved that's maybe stunting our continuum of care that you're striving for?
Emily Ball: I think we have a lot of folks who are taking action at the individual level who are giving money to local non profit service providers or donating stuff or volunteering.
I do want to be clear that, we do have a lot of folks in the community who are trying to participate in solutions. And, I think what we have not had in our community is a continuum of care infrastructure to pull all those pieces together and to make it clear to people how they can participate.
Like, where does your puzzle piece fit in? If you can't see that whole puzzle and you're not sure how to engage, then you're probably not going to engage. I think we have a role as staff in helping to build this out, but our opportunity as a community is to build this comprehensive response that creates a seat at the table for every stakeholder in our community so people understand how they can participate.
Matt Peiken: Is that one of the things your department is actively doing now, in a sense, creating a blueprint or a map that anybody can look at and say, Oh, If this is happening, this is who I go to. If I don't know where to turn, this is the central agency clearinghouse. I imagine that would be your office. Are you in the midst of doing something like that?
Emily Ball: Absolutely. And I'd say that's happening on two levels. One is again, is building those seats at the table, which means we have to first build the table, which has not historically existed in our community So really figuring out who's in charge of what and how do those things connect to each other?
We got recommendations from the national alliance to end homelessness in january and one of those included Restructuring our continuum of care to have a really clear membership body of stakeholders And have that membership body elect a board of directors to set strategy and direction on behalf of the continuum of care.
Have associated committees and work groups and have all of that tied together in service to a common goal. We haven't operated that way in the past in this community. And our role as staff is to undergird that community effort and to support Planning bodies and developing that we have a new Charter that's about to be rolled out We're about to be building that membership body that will elect that board all of that will happen early in 2024 So again, that's a sort of Supporting the work to build the table so people know how to have a seat at the table.
So that's one layer. The other layer I think is actual service provision to people who are homeless and building out the capacity of service providers and helping create opportunities for service providers to collaborate with each other through. Clear and streamlined ways. Like right now, if you talk to someone who needed services, if you don't have a wealth of information yourself, it's hard to give them a quick answer about how they can get connected with the care that they need.
So we've got to do a lot of work on that in our community and our job in the homeless strategy division is to convene the groups, facilitate the meetings, help draft materials and that kind of thing. So that our community can build that infrastructure that can be more effective.
Matt Peiken: We talked about affordable housing that I imagine all of these stakeholders want to see more of and there are two big developments happening. Maybe there are more and you can point out some others if there are, but there are two that I guess are Getting most attention these days are the renovated hotels, the renovated Ramada Inn and the Days Inn which are becoming Step Up and Compass Point Village.
And one is way more ahead, I guess, than the other. Let's talk first about what's working and Homeward Bound and Compass Point Village. Can one of you describe this project and how this Even started the genesis of working with Homeward Bound to make this happen.
Debbie Alford: So Compass Point Village is specifically meant for folks with permanent supportive housing interventions in our community. And we talk about permanent supportive housing in the learning series, but that is our highest level of intervention in our community. So it's specifically reserved for folks that are experiencing chronic homelessness.
So really long time outside and paired with that disability. Whether it's mental, physical, substance use, whatever the disability is that impacts housing. So those folks are the most vulnerable in our community and need the most support to maintain housing. And Homeward Bound identified several years ago that we have chronically homeless individuals in our community that are not succeeding at other interventions, and so thought creatively about how to find the solution for those folks and eventually landed on developing Compass Point Village, which they've, renovated the hotel and they're leasing up those units now they've got.
Probably 75 percent of their folks moved in.
Matt Peiken: Already, and there's I think 87 units, right? Is that what that is? I thought that was...
Emily Ball: 85 units, but 87 people because they have two couples. Oh, okay.
Matt Peiken: Okay. Interesting. By the way, our episode that we're taping now is going to be in a week. Where I also have an episode featuring just the Homeward Bound folks talking about Compass Point Village.
And then the third episode is with Sue Polston of Sunrise, talking about what they do. And I know Sunrise is playing a role in the work that's going to happen at Compass Point Village in terms of full bodied services.
Debbie Alford: Yeah, and I think that's a great way to describe it. Full bodied services, right?
One of the intentions of... Programs like compass point village is to provide services on site. We know that there's a huge barrier for folks that are experiencing homelessness to get to doctor's appointments, to make it to other therapy appointments to make progress towards their long term goals.
And so when someone is newly housed, they often still struggle with transportation and Getting to those appointments and so that case management is key, but also having those services on site makes it a lot easier To get folks to their appointments to have that peer support that Sunrise provides on site so that folks can You know, start to recover from whatever it is they're experiencing.
Matt Peiken: Yeah, it's not, it's not merely just putting a roof over somebody's head, but helping to rebuild them from the inside out so they can, stay un stay housed and get a job and lead healthy family lives and be healthy all the way around. Emily, what's the difference between... The project that is compass point village, where it's working with a nonprofit versus the step up project, which I understand it's with through a private developer.
So aside from that difference, and maybe that's a key difference, but talk about the difference in the scope of that project.
Emily Ball: Yeah, you're exactly right. You've nailed it. So the only difference between those two projects is the structure of the financing. And that's it.
Matt Peiken: Why? Why? When? We had a non profit in town that was looking to do something and from what I understand from what Homeward Bound told me They were initially looking to develop something from the ground up.
They were looking to build and then they saw this opportunity Why was that? Not replicated. Why was it not another non profit working with the city? to develop the Ramada Inn why did it take a private developer versus a non profit in this case?
Emily Ball: I think it's such a good example of a public private partnership and what we want in the continuum of care, what I want as an individual is all comers.
We need all hands on deck in this situation and we had. Somebody, a former staff member at the city had been connected with these folks at Shangri La and Step Up, and they had been looking to do a project in Asheville, and they were looking to purchase a property with their own capital.
The city had originally been under contract to purchase the Ramada for a different use and then when that wasn't going to go forward, then we just passed off that contract to purchase to them. So, This wasn't the city seeking out a particular... structure, it was really just putting puzzle pieces together.
Matt Peiken: So it wasn't that the city had identified. The Ramada as a potential housing source at before this developer came forward and pointed that out themselves or had the city already identified the Ramada as something that could be converted into. a permanent housing solution.
Emily Ball: Nope, city wasn't working on that at that point.
The city was looking for a permanent location for a long term emergency shelter, which we know is a gap in our community's services. So had been looking at the Ramada for that purpose. And then when that project didn't go forward, we just were aware of this other developer that was specifically looking for hotel properties to convert into permanent supportive housing.
So it made that connection between the developer and the seller.
Matt Peiken: So what has happened now with that project? Where do you think sit? There's been some media coverage around Shangri La. The developer not fulfilling some of its promises. And right now nothing has been developed there. Apparently there were some fees that they hadn't paid yet.
So nothing has happened. Or at least from what I can tell, can you clear up where are we at with this project and where things going?
Emily Ball: Would love to do that. Yeah, that project is on track. They are slated for occupancy in 2024. That's the current projection. So Shangri La is the private for profit developer that has purchased that.
Property using private capital. So there are no, no local dollars in that and no public dollars in that. So they have purchased that. They worked with a local contractor to do the initial demolition work. And most of that has been interior work. So it's not been visible to the public. But that initial demolition work is completed.
They have just been in a process of transitioning from that contractor to a different general contractor that will do the remainder of the work that's in process right now. They have filed their permits haven't yet paid those fees, but in a very standard way, there's a six month window for developers to do that, and they're still within that six month window.
So there are no delinquent fees there. Everything is continuing to move forward.
Matt Peiken: See, okay. This is what bothers me about certain kinds of press coverage. Now I've been a journalist my whole career, but when I read this story and it was a three part story that to me, at least at this point, isn't a story yet.
It seemed to be a non story and correct me if I'm wrong here, that many, if not most construction projects. There's all kinds of delays and that from what I also understand Post pandemic that just getting work crews having stable work crews is difficult people come and go from the job all the time and that okay, let's say Shangri La originally had hoped that the Ramada would be opened in or they would start welcoming people in 2023 if it turns out that step up doesn't start welcoming people until let's say next summer.
Okay. Okay. Thank you. So it's a six months, eight months delay to me. Okay. Not that you want that. But to me that, that, it's common.
Emily Ball: Yeah. Homeward Bound will tell you the same thing. They also had delays in getting the building ready at Compass Point Village. Because these are complex construction projects.
In both of these cases, you're working with, Older buildings that have some surprises, Homeward bound uncovered some electrical problems They had to resolve some water problems. They had to resolve and as you just said The construction industry just like most every industry is struggling coming out of the pandemic staffing is hard for folks consistent staffing is hard So yeah, I think construction delays are normal, but I've not seen or heard anything that makes me concerned about the trajectory of the Ramada and Shangri La and Step Up's ability to deliver those 113 units in our community.
Matt Peiken: And, let's put that in perspective. When you're dealing with 113 units there, 85 units with the Compass Point Village, you talked about, Debbie, in your class that what were the total number, In the point in time count of the chronic unhoused, it was in the two, it was 200 something. I don't remember what that figure was.
My question is with this, once these are filled, no more chronically unhoused, at least Conceptually that everybody at a certain, up to that point in time could be housed.
Then, of course, more people add to the rolls. They become unhoused. I'm not, you said it a while ago, we're not going to end homelessness. But will these two projects take, at least in theory, every chronically unhoused person who we have accounted for up to that point? Off the streets and put them into
Emily Ball: housing.
I think they should make a huge dent in the chronic population. One particular note is that the Step Up Project at the Ramada includes 50 units that are dedicated to veterans who are homeless, who may or may not be chronically homeless. The remainder of those folks in that property those units are dedicated to folks who are chronically homeless.
But also the data that Debbie's using in her series is, as she said, is the point in time data, so it's from January of 2023. It's now 10 months later almost so if someone had just become homeless in January, they're close to being chronically homeless in our community now. That's not a static number or a static population.
I do expect that with both of these developments open and occupied, we should see a really significant change in our point in time count this coming year and the following year. But people are continuing to... age into chronicity because they're homeless longer because housing is harder to
Matt Peiken: access.
Also from what I understand, these are permanent solutions. So there's no time cap. There's no time cap on how long somebody can stay in this place. Oh, you have a year to get your life together and then find other housing. So once people are in there, okay, it's now ground zero again. We have more people becoming chronically unhoused.
Are we going to have to continue to find dilapidated hotels that are no longer existing and convert them into permanent housing to keep up with our demand here?
Emily Ball: We got to work at both ends of the spectrum. So yes, they don't necessarily have to be hotels, but we do have to maintain a pipeline of new housing development at all income levels, right?
That's true for across the housing spectrum and including people who need permanent supportive housing. So yes, we need to continue to keep a pipeline going to add capacity there. And as our system gets better and better resource. It gets better at resolving homelessness early on for people.
Then they don't become chronic, don't get that level of need, and don't need that permanent supportive housing. So we should be decreasing the demand and increasing the supply continually.
Matt Peiken: Is there a requirement since Step Up is a private development, do they have to maintain that as a facility for the chronically unhoused?
Can they raise the rent? What kind of controls has the city placed on Step Up so that it remains an affordable housing option for the formerly unhoused?
Emily Ball: So there are two things. First, it's really important that people understand that the city didn't fund the acquisition, didn't fund the rehab, that this is just a private developer making a private purchase.
Matt Peiken: But they did get certain tax breaks or something to do this though, right? There had, no?
Emily Ball: This is a private developer making a private purchase and they did voluntarily, Agree to a deed restriction to maintain the property for this purpose. So that's one piece The second piece is that the city has committed 1. 5 million dollars in funding over three years So half a million a year to step up for the supportive services for people who are living on sites That's case management, etc.
Matt Peiken: So this the supportive services that are happening at the homeward bound facility the compass point village It'll be it is somewhat replicated through this 1. 5 million dollars over three years. Is that what you're saying? That the services that come at step up will be similar to those at compass point.
Emily Ball: That's right both of these developments are very similar in population served and very similar in scope of services So really trying to provide rich intensive on site support for people who need that in order to be stable and stay housed
Matt Peiken: Debbie you wanted to say something
Debbie Alford: emily was talking about system flow and really building that capacity. And I think part of that, we talk about in the learning series in session two, is about the bathtub that's overflowing, right? We have to work on supporting people that are most vulnerable of homelessness before they have that experience, right?
Turning down the flow of water, if you will, into the tub, but then also opening the drain so that folks that are experiencing homelessness can resolve that. And then also when someone is in permanent supportive housing, those service providers working with that population are helping that person reach long term goals so that they can graduate from that program and maybe transition into a tenant based voucher, which is like section eight people are more familiar with that term But like they don't need that case management anymore And that frees up a spot for permanent supportive housing So there's increased flow within the system that way as well,
Matt Peiken: right?
So it's not just that so once somebody is in step up and or in compass point village say I've found my forever home that even though they can stay for as long as they want to or need to but they in likelihood might want a bigger place at some point and
Emily Ball: it's exactly the same as you are living in an apartment or a house.
We're not. We're not bound to anything other than the lease agreement, and so if we decide to leave at the end of that lease term and move to a bigger apartment or a different location, we're certainly free to do that, and also, if we want to renew that lease, then we have that opportunity.
Same idea here.
Matt Peiken: I know you're leading another session of these classes. November and December you're doing a what else is your department doing? What else is your work on the ground that you'd like people to understand know about?
Emily Ball: You know, I think the biggest things are really what I was saying earlier about how our job in our department is to build capacity across our community and that's happening at these two key levels. So one is supporting the work to create the Continuum of Care membership body, which means we need you.
We need all stakeholders in our community. To join this membership body, which is a planning body, just a group of folks who are coming together to say yes I'm on the team. I want to participate And then for that body to elect a board that can set strategy for our community The city and county should certainly be part of that.
But this is really intended to be a community driven initiative I know It might sound bureaucratic and not very exciting, but it is going to be really exciting. I think it's going to change the game and how we work together across the community, and we should see really meaningful impact around that.
So that's one. And then the other is Debbie's doing a lot of training and we're doing a lot of build out of that infrastructure that just hasn't existed in our community in the past. So making sure we have a way for service providers to share data with each other, for example those kinds of very basic pieces of infrastructure that will really make the whole system work more effectively.