Asheville saw a doubling of the unsheltered in 2022 over the previous year. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego

A national consultant hired to advise Asheville on its highly visible homeless population stood before elected leaders last month with a bold proclamation for a plan she described as a “roadmap of how to end homelessness in your community.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of those who participated in and followed the work of the Washington, D.C.-based National Alliance to End Homelessness were skeptical.

“This was a sham,” said Michael Woods, executive director of the nonprofit Western Carolina Rescue Ministries. “We brought in the National Alliance to End Homelessness and paid them $73,000 to tell us to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Michael Woods

Some of the findings, like a shortage of affordable housing and high cost of living, were obvious to anyone who’s lived or worked in Asheville.

“You’re telling us we’ve got to put more people into housing, and we’ve been talking about affordable housing for 20 years,” Woods said.

Some of the people most affected by homelessness — including those working in the field, business owners, and the unhoused themselves — had lost faith in Asheville’s ability to make any significant difference even before the anticipated “Within Reach: Ending Unsheltered Homelessness” report came out Jan. 20.

In hundreds of interviews and surveys the consultant conducted, “Community members reported a loss of trust and belief in the ability of elected officials, city, and county staff to have any real impact on homelessness.”

Steady Stream of Homeless

The population of homeless people in Asheville has remained about the same for at least 25 years: generally 500 to 600 annually but higher some years, despite spending millions of dollars and past pledges to reduce or end homelessness altogether.

Asheville’s homeless population fluctuates somewhat but has been above 500 much of the past 25 years. // Sources: “Looking Homeward,” and City of Asheville

In 2004-05, facing concerns similar to today’s, local government and community leaders met for six months and produced a report titled, “Looking Homeward: The 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness” in Asheville and Buncombe County.

Back then, Asheville’s homeless population was 689. The latest count, as of January 2022, was 637. The 2023 “point-in-time” census was counted Jan. 31, but results won’t be released until Spring.

Buncombe County Commissioner Terri Wells said she is “not interested in focusing on the past reports or what other leaders did or didn’t do.”

With “strong community collaboration,” Wells said, “we will achieve a significant reduction in unsheltered homelessness.”

Tents, Drugs, and Complaints

Nearly two decades ago, it was the chronically homeless that prompted the 2005 report with its erroneous prediction: “ ‘Looking Homeward’ will end chronic homelessness and reduce all types of homelessness over the next decade.”

By 2022, Asheville had 211 chronically homeless people and a doubling over the previous year of unsheltered people living on the streets, in tents, or in cars, often with mental illnesses and/or drug and alcohol addictions.

… Asheville is more expensive than 98 percent of other North Carolina cities and is currently in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, rents have risen 41.7 percent …

National Alliance to End Homelessness FINAL REPORT

Tent encampments popped up along highways and rivers and under overpasses. Homeless people behaved erratically, fueled by especially potent drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine, generating complaints from business owners, tourists, and downtown visitors.

“Many people expressed concern about public safety decreasing and their families ‘being afraid’ to be out in the community,” the Alliance’s report said. Those experiencing homelessness also reported feeling unsafe.

So, in May 2022, the city and county agreed to seek “national expertise” and hired the nonprofit Alliance to “guide the county’s work on homelessness.” Dogwood Health Trust paid the $72,974 cost.

‘Nowhere To Go’

So what did Asheville get for its money, and how realistic is the plan?

The main goal the Alliance recommended — cutting the unsheltered population in half in two years — is likely doable with projects that were already under way.

The number of unsheltered as of January 2022 was 232. Nearly 200 more beds are scheduled to become available this year with the conversion of two former hotels, the Days Inn on Tunnel Road and the Ramada Inn on River Ford Parkway.

“Those projects will certainly help,” Emily Ball, Asheville’s homeless strategy division manager, told Asheville Watchdog via email. “They are dedicated to people who are chronically homeless, many of whom are unsheltered.”

The Alliance also recommended providing rental assistance for an additional 200 homeless single adults and 50 families to quickly find housing, and adding 95 temporary shelter beds.

A more immediate need, Woods said, should be safe apartments and housing — both public and private — for people already in shelters.

“I have 110 people that are in my shelter that are working every day, that are saving money, that are ready to be housed, but they have nowhere to go,” Woods said. “When they apply for market-rate housing, because of the demand in the area, because of something on their past credit or maybe past criminal history, they get looked over, so they’re having to stay in shelter. . .a whole lot longer than what they really need.”

Asheville’s public housing, Woods said, has too much crime, including drug dealing and shootings.

“We have people living in public housing that I talk with that are absolutely afraid for their lives,” he said. “I know families in Hillcrest who literally every evening lay on the floor. Their grandchildren sleep in the bathtub because of the gun violence.”

New Model Gets Support

One recommendation that seems to have widespread support is a change in the leadership and oversight of Asheville’s homeless response, which is currently housed under the city and managed by a committee of 16 with eight members appointed each by the City Council and County Commission.

In other places like Houston, often held up as a national model for reducing homelessness, a nonprofit agency independent of local government oversees homelessness and includes representation and buy-in from the many organizations involved in the work, as well as previously homeless people.

The goal is to promote coordination “so everybody is sort of rowing in the same direction,” Ann Oliva, the Alliance’s CEO, told Asheville and Buncombe elected officials at a meeting Jan. 25.

Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, presents the consultant’s work. // Watchdog photo by Starr Sariego.

“We’ve been calling for that for a number of years,” said Scott Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry (ABCCM).

Another benefit of the proposed change, said Marcus Laws, homeless services director at Homeward Bound: “It offers an opportunity to take politics out of it.”

“We as agencies have to do better about working together,” Laws said.

‘Critical Lack’ of Data and Coordination

Oliva told the elected officials that “lots of good work” is being done around homelessness in Asheville but it’s “not fully coordinated.”

One reason, the Alliance found, is a “critical lack” of data about the unhoused, the services they’re receiving or needing, and what’s working.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires local governments and agencies that receive HUD money for homelessness to to track people and services in the Homeless Management Information System.

But “only about 66 percent of service providers in Asheville-Buncombe County provide entry and exit data into the HMIS database,” the consultant’s report said. “This represents a critical lack of information about those who may want and need housing and services in the community and the lack of available housing interventions.”

Ball, Asheville’s homeless strategy manager, told Asheville Watchdog that the VA Medical Center does not participate in HMIS but does capture information about homeless veterans in a different federally mandated system. “We have a manual workaround in progress to include their data in HMIS,” she said.

Two other agencies that serve the homeless do not use the database, Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry that operates a transitional housing program, and Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, Ball said.

Woods said the Rescue Ministries staff collects the data — and more — in a separate system and is willing to provide it anytime or allow the city to tap into his database for a fee.

Participation in the HMIS should be mandatory, the consultant said.

The Houston nonprofit that oversees homelessness in that city includes a representative from a university that analyzes data and committees that ensure its “data is solid,” Oliva said.

San Diego, a place that Oliva said more closely aligns with Asheville, publicly posts live data on its unhoused. “They look at their data every single day,” she said.

Money Flows, But How Much?

Another shortcoming of Asheville’s system: A lot of money is going toward homelessness, but no central entity tracks the total or coordinates where best to spend it.

The federal and local governments currently provide $3.3 million annually, and this year, the city and county received $23.8 million in COVID-19 relief money that went toward homeless services and housing.

On top of that is additional federal funding for veterans and private donations to the many nonprofits operating shelters, providing housing and helping people on the streets.

Homeward Bound has raised more than $15 million through public and private sources for the purchase and conversion of the Days Inn into housing for 85 chronically homeless people.

ABCCM recently built housing for 100 homeless women, children and veterans, and “raised $13 million entirely from the private sector,” said Rogers, the director.

The current city-county advisory committee decides how to spend one piece, the federal homelessness funding. Asheville should track all the money to ensure it’s used “systemically and not funding ad hoc projects,” the Alliance said.

In all, the consultant’s recommendations, primarily for the increase in rental assistance and shelter beds, will cost an additional $6 million, according to estimates in the report.

‘Got to Keep Trying’

Buncombe County Commissioner Terri Wells

Asheville Watchdog asked all Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Commissioners about the consultant’s proposals. Only County Commissioners Terri Wells and Parker Sloan responded by deadline.

Wells said she wants to see a timeline with costs. “In order to make a significant impact, we must address multiple aspects of this issue with urgency,” she said. “Prevention and diversion measures are key.”

Sloan said that “homelessness is a policy choice, and we have built a society that allows it to happen.”

“We can provide people with healthcare, with addiction treatment, a basic guaranteed income, public safety and make sure they have housing,” he said. “Our society is already spending money on these things; we just do it in a needlessly punitive, unintentional, and inefficient way.”

Buncombe County Commissioner Parker Sloan

Sloan said the new leadership structure “may be the biggest benefit” of the consultant’s report. “My hope is that we make a number of different choices so that my kids don’t have to have this same conversation 20 years from now.” 

Jerome Jones, a former Buncombe County assistant manager, chaired the committee that produced the 2005 plan to end homelessness in Asheville.

He said homelessness has remained a pervasive problem in most cities because of a lack of affordable housing, and “an endless supply of people in need…because of our economy, because of our lack of a social network, because of our ‘don’t give a damn about poor people that are homeless.’ ”

“I think it’s not a matter of a lot of good hasn’t been done,” Jones said.

He said he titled the 2005 report an “end to homelessness,” knowing “that wasn’t going to happen.”

“A lot of people did beat homelessness, people did get their lives together, people did get services they hadn’t been getting,” said Jones, who retired and now lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

And given that the number of unhoused people in Buncombe has stayed relatively flat since 2000 while the county’s population grew by 33 percent, Jones said, is “a big win.”

“It’s never going to be zero,” Jones said. “I think you simply can’t say we’re going to let this population just stay the way they are. We’ve got to keep trying.”

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email

18 replies on “National Consultant Offers ‘Roadmap’ to End Homelessness in Asheville … Again”

  1. Asheville’s answer to any hot issue: “call in the consultants” and avoid all accountability. Asheville apparently has a population of very low IQ people so the city must go to other cities and states to find the appropriate intelligence to tell us what to do with our homeless, our reparations, our monuments, our pits of despair. No wonder the city is literally falling apart.

    1. Why do we have all these commissions and committees and consultants? All of which, presumably, have one goal in mind–to eliminate homelessness. Can’t there be just one group or commission? My vote would be the BCCM. I know it’s a Christian group–perish the thought. But they are dealing with the issue with their hearts. Not with virtue signaling. Or as a well-paying job. Or as a career.

  2. There’s new model for more than just “solving” homelessness in western North Carolina. Get The Dogwood Trust to fund a study to recommend to government and nonprofits the things the Dogwood Trust wants to or will fund. That way they can get the money they got from the sale of Mission out the door fast enough to meet their “obligations” as defined by the tax code. That rather effectively keeps the status quo in place. This philanthropic model is being reconsidered all over the country, but here in North Carolina we are evidently still behind the curve. Follow the money. Thought experiment. If Mission had not been sold to HCA to fund the Dogwood Trust, where would Mission be now? Mission was not the Nirvana comparison with HCA sometimes makes it seem. There’s an acronym for what is often going on: NPIC. Nonprofit Industrial Complex. There’s an older term that’s not as polite. Money laundering, legally, and even with good intentions, but in the service of inequity. The road to hell is often paved with good intentions, as the saying goes. What usually goes unsaid it the the road building project is a jobs program financed with grant money.

  3. Micro housing is the answer. For someone making $15/hr (typical), that would mean about $800 available for rent each month (assuming 1/3 monthly income). At a build price of $250 per sq ft, and todays 30 year mortgage interest rates, that $800 per month should get you about 450-500 sq feet of apartment. This would mean a small studio like to two former hotels being converted to housing. This is just plain economics that would apply to any city.

    1. I’m all for home-ownership for all, but that’s assuming that all those experiencing homelessness are the same (they’re not) and assuming that all would keep up with their payments rather than buy drugs (they won’t) and assuming you could find land inexpensive enough to build such units (not here)…very few people are brave enough to say we need to address the root causes: Too much Tourism (which has led to less affordable homes); too much drug use (meaning many homeless need rehab, not affordable houses); basic misunderstanding about ‘affordable housing’ as some of that housing should/might be ‘shelter’ or ‘adequate housing’ or the fact that while some will benefit from a ‘hand up’, many will not…and of course, we keep hiring all the wrong consultants to say stupid things over and over because they’re low IQ cowards who merely wish to earn a living and not rock the boat or the hand that feeds because, truly, if Asheville is more expensive than 98% of North Carolina, then there are less pricey places for people to live…I could go on and on, but I shall stop here.

      Finally, there’s a great interview in the February ’23 issue of The Sun Magazine about our unhoused population.

    2. Not questioning Chris K’s* numbers, copied below, but at $800/month rent, that $73,000 could have paid for about 90 months of rent.
      Of course, if Asheville already has some of the solutions in progress did we really need the consultant, often a person you pay to tell you what time it is.
      As a behavioral scientist, long and happily retired, I’ve been a consultant and usedsome when helpful, often enough to know, there’s also often a lot of boilerplate, stock answers in these reports, partly because there are only so man fixes they can recommend.
      Reorganizing the management structure away from the current city run show, is likely to help a great deal as we all know a camel is a horse designed by committee.
      Strong commitment to a tight system by all those delivering services to is required here as it is in so many problems. Everyone needs to be dancing to the same tune, as they say. It should not be run by people who do other stuff, city/county employees, politicians, a collection of well meaning volunteers, there’s just too many agendas, and too little time.
      Then there’s accountability through good straight line communication, data collection and analysis, one system, one data collection and analysis protocol not multiples, consistency, operating by a set of dedicated, as in this all they do, people with a single chain of command and regular check points along a specific timeline for deliverables. And there has to be motivation both by those doing the work to make it work, carrot and stick, if you will, but it must be applied equally and consistently from the top to the bottom. That is not to overlook or simplify, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Herzberg’s two-factor theory: Motivators and Hygiene Factors regarding job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction, .
      Finally, I would offer, reward and train people for what you expect them to do.
      These are all important to facilitate the various organizations providing services to function together as one team, rather than disparate clusters with varying goals and paths to achieve mutual goals.
      As I mentioned, I am many years away from all this, so I may not have the current jargon for this stuff, but I do believe in what you are trying to do. Thank you.

      “Chris K says:*
      February 7, 2023 at 8:12 am
      Micro housing is the answer. For someone making $15/hr (typical), that would mean about $800 available for rent each month (assuming 1/3 monthly income). At a build price of $250 per sq ft, and todays 30 year mortgage interest rates, that $800 per month should get you about 450-500 sq feet of apartment. This would mean a small studio like to two former hotels being converted to housing. This is just plain economics that would apply to any city.”

  4. Success in this endeavor is all about `spending other people’s money’, whether taxpayer or private funds. After countless financial efforts to solve the problem, we have still to make significant progress. Solving homelessness without first solving alcohol and drug addiction, laziness, and stupidity is a futile effort. I don’t think it can ever be solved, lessoned maybe, but solved never. Contemporary societal values prevent that from happening.

    The old maxims “God helps those who help themselves first”, and “operation bootstraps” are laughed at today. As a taxpayer, I have little control over which ratholes governments throws my tax-dollars into, but my private funds I do have control over and I’ll not knowingly throw my hard earned, after-tax dollars, into known ratholes.

  5. Many of these recommendations to address the immediate needs of Asheville’s homeless population sound like the right direction — especially centrally tracking the funds and shifting the management outside of city hall.

    Ultimately though this is a huge structural issue that plenty of other places are facing and it all comes down to not enough housing being built. If Asheville is serious about solving this problem, it needs to be easier to build more housing. End single family zoning within city limits. Incentivize green construction. Fast track projects that meet certain minimums, like built-in renewable energy, no new natural gas lines, no parking minimums. Stop letting NIMBYs gum up the works, like on Charlotte Street. Incintivize more infill development downtown by removing housing for cars and building infrastructure to make downtown a place where people can live, not just visit on the weekends. Expand the infrastructure for alternate modes of transit, especially bikes and buses, to reduce car dependency. Redesign downtown streets so they’re safer, more walkable, quieter, and more amenable to livability.

    For 25 years, Asheville has prioritized building hotels and parking while pushing people further and further out into car dependent suburbs that are also more expensive and now people are surprised there’s a shortage of housing. These are relatively simple and, on balance, cheap ways to add more housing. All that’s required is a little political will.

  6. How many are actually homeless? The majority in Asheville are transients who come and go until the handouts disappear, and then they come back.

    Until all these people trying to help learn to differentiate between someone that is actually homeless and someone that is a transient the problem will never be resolved.

    1. San Diego attracts lots of transients because of the perfect weather … Ed, you are correct about who is and who is not homeless vs transients in AVL, been saying that for years now…Tim, I too and very concerned about the millions of illegals streaming in…but the current administration seeks to destroy the country.

  7. The article turned out to be a lot less negative than the headline and teaser paragraph suggested. The author wrote “local advocates” (plural) and “many of those who participated in and followed the work of.” Yet there was only one advocate quoted who had a negative comment. The rest of the article merely reported the recommendations and some people’s responses to it.

    I have only lived here two years. But I have followed the issues of homelessness and affordable housing closely, as I was involved with these issues when I lived in LA, which has one hundred times the number of homeless people in that county. The root causes of homelessness are complex. I read the report and think the Alliance did a good job of identifying them. But these root causes must be addressed at the federal and state government level and even at the family level.

    We have experienced four decades of neoliberal capitalism under both parties that has led to the greatest wealth and income inequality since the Gilded Age. Public housing and services for mental illness and substance use disorder have been underfunded. There is only so much local government can do with limited funds. However, to address one root cause, lack of deeply affordable housing, as someone who has been looking into what it takes to build deeply affordable tiny homes, I have found a plethora of rules and regulations at all levels of government that need to be changed.

    I have observed exactly what the consultant did, that the groups serving the homeless here are not working together. And neither are the city and county. The main recommendation for establishing a Continuum of Care board that is made up of all entities who deal with homelessness must be followed. It must be a separate entity like in San Diego, not housed in the city or county. Organizations like Beloved Asheville, who actually serve the unsheltered homeless in ways that are not always countenanced by the public and the powers that be, should serve on it. And groups who sometimes present like they fear the homeless and just want them bussed out or locked up should be on it as well. There should be a representative from the downtown business owners association and a couple from neighborhood homeowners associations. And as the consultant said, actual homeless people should be on the board too.
    There are a lot of misconceptions that lead to disdain, fear and even hatred of the homeless that are regularly hashed out in lengthy threads on NextDoor. These conversations should be held in the open.

    As far as consultants go, I don’t think Asheville always needs to hire outside consultants to solve problems. But when you can bring in a consultant who has the immediate knowledge of what works in other cities, that is invaluable. I, for one, appreciated their report and am excited to see the city and county act on it.

  8. check out “Mobile Loaves and Fishes”, non-proselytizing religious outfit that has built a safe community, a village really, for homeless (now formerly homeless) folks in Travis County (Austin) TX. There are still plenty of unsheltered folks on the streets unfortunately, but this is an example of having and working a meaningful plan. It involves real estate and tiny houses, community kitchen, plus on-site services.

  9. 1. Has anyone done a study to see how the houseless numbers have increased alongside increased TDA advertising during the same timeline?
    2. I keep seeing the overall numbers of houseless individuals, and I agree (as someone suggested before) that some of these people are transients here for the handouts (and possibly drawn by the flowery TDA advertisements and Asheville’s reputation as a cool city with beer, drugs and live music).
    3. What I never see is a breakdown of the numbers. Of the 600-plus unhoused, how many are recently houseless and would wildly benefit from some assistance with jobs/affordable housing? How many are so disabled (physically, mentally, drugs) that simply providing housing won’t begin to help with/heal the core issues? How many might have family/friend supports in less expensive towns where they might go to regroup? I feel like what I’ve read from local leaders and consultants is shoddy work, barely scratching the surface; the vague simplified overall numbers without the human stories behind them do little for me. The unhoused population is very much like the housed population in that each human has their own story. I have first-hand knowledge due to my drug-addict conman brother who’s spent half his adult life on the streets, the other half in jail.

    1. If we can’t handle the homeless in Asheville, what will happen we get an insurge of the hundreds of thousands of people and drugs coming across the border illegally every month?

  10. Maybe the city council and county managers need to travel down to Raleigh for a few nights and stay at a beautiful hotel and enjoy some fine dining to figure out what to do. Guess us taxpayers need to pay for this little retreat too.

  11. Asheville (the city) experiences most of the homeless impacts. Buncombe County receives much larger tax receipts and is responsible for all social services throughout the county (and city), but has not provided any strong/overall leadership role as well as I can determine. By the way, the same dynamics/realities are pretty much the same with Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.

    Asheville recently moved to create a homeless strategy group (Emily Ball lead), ostensibly to assume a larger (perhaps main) leadership role with solutions.

    The key takeaway from the recent study is that all the different homeless support areas need to be on the same boat and rowing in the same direction (or perhaps leaving their oar out of the water at times if they can’t agree), including a shared database (probably politically incorrect nomenclature) on these folks that will provide ongoing and current information to allow services to be better applied.

    All of this will be quite a challenge. I believe there are some large differences of opinion on the approach to this population ranging from “tough love” to essentially “anything goes” (my frame up not theirs of course). So, for example, will a sheltar that has rules for overnight occupancy and that fails to fill beds even in the worst winter weather, be willing to convert part of that sheltar to a “low barrier” model?
    Will Amy Cantrell and Beloved move away from providing “tent” drop-in concern and services to homeless in that same severe weather?

    Finally, I don’t necessarily agree that the “Independent Advisory Board” need be non-governmental. As long as the leaders are sensitive to all viewpoints and collaborative in approach, I feel the new City staff should lead. And frankly, the City of Asheville should lead, as again, it is obvious that our city bears the brunt of impact from this condition.

  12. I’m perplexed by the statement indicating that San Diego more closely aligns with Asheville – is there any additional context here? Having recently moved from San Diego, this comparison doesn’t appear to have much face validity. The homeless population in San Diego is much more visible, not only in the downtown area, but also in surrounding midtown and beach neighborhoods. The petty theft and other crime associated with the homeless population also seems much more rampant. Honestly, the “problem” has seemed minimally visible to us here in Asheville as new residents, and we spend a considerable amount of time in downtown. As a result, I’m curious about the data to support this so called alignment.

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