By Emma Castleberry
Ronnie Owen had been living on the streets and in shelters for nearly 20 years when he walked into Homeward Bound’s AHOPE Day Center four years ago. After a work-related forty-foot fall broke his heel, Owen didn’t have health insurance to cover the surgery he needed. He was denied disability income and eventually lost his home and his vehicle. “I looked for work and couldn’t find any,” he says. “I didn’t have a choice.” Stepping foot into AHOPE was the first time Owen had sought help in his struggle with homelessness. “All my life I was raised up to give and not receive,” he says. “It’s always been hard for me to ask for help. I guess that’s part of what got me where I am.”
On any given night in our region, more than 500 people are experiencing homelessness. Of that population, more than 30 percent are suffering from a mental illness, more than 40 percent are veterans and eight percent are children. “At Homeward Bound, we believe that homelessness is a solvable problem, particularly through the best practice, evidence-based principle of housing first,” says Jim Lowder, strategic gifts officer at Homeward Bound. The housing first principle is a simple one: before any other problems can be solved, a person needs permanent housing. “You can’t begin to do anything if you’re sleeping out on the street, or even in a shelter,” says Lowder. “Life is too hard. You spend your days thinking about the next meal, where to go to the bathroom, how to avoid being arrested.” The housing first model focuses on providing permanent housing as quickly as possible, then wrapping other voluntary services around the person in need. Despite the fact that the housing first approach is encouraged by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Homeward Bound is the only private service agency in this area that uses the approach exclusively.
Homeward Bound’s AHOPE Day Center is carefully positioned in the center of downtown Asheville, just a short distance from several local shelters including the Haywood Street Congregation, the WNC Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army. “AHOPE is the front door to housing,” says Lowder. “This is where everything starts if you’re homeless and looking for help.”
After Owen’s first visit to AHOPE, he was connected with the Homeward Bound housing team who helped him access his disability benefits and secured him a place in public housing. His physical mobility and arthritis have since deteriorated, and this summer his housing specialist, Amanda, helped him move into a more accessible apartment with walk-in showers and wider doorways that accommodate his walker. An additional bonus is that Owen, who loves to walk despite his physical disabilities, feels safer strolling the sidewalks in his new neighborhood. This success story is not uncommon: as of June 30, 2018, Homeward Bound has moved 1,950 people who were experiencing homelessness into permanent housing. Eighty nine percent of those people have never become homeless again.
Homeward Bound started in 1987 as an organization called Hospitality House, operated out of a local church. In 1998, the city donated a sliver of land and Hospitality House built the current AHOPE Center. In 2006, Hospitality House made the decision to adopt the housing first model and end homelessness, rather than simply manage the issue. “We changed our name to Homeward Bound to reflect that new mission,” Lowder says.
Initially intended to serve between 30 and 40 people a day, the AHOPE Center now sees an average of 130 people a day, sometimes as many as 200. The “brain” of the center is the front desk, where intake specialists connect people with services. The first intake interview happens about two weeks after someone arrives at AHOPE. During that time, they can access a variety of services through the center, including fresh socks and underwear, showers, toiletries, laundry vouchers, snacks and coffee. One of the center’s most powerful tools is the mailroom. To get housing, you often need a Social Security card, identification card and/or birth certificate. Ironically, you need a home address to have these documents mailed to you. The mailroom at AHOPE makes that possible. The center also provides a locked office for storing medication and personal files.
A portion of the people who come through AHOPE will self-resolve, or find a place to stay without utilizing services. For those who don’t, there is a simple intake interview two weeks after their arrival at AHOPE and a more involved interview two weeks after that. Using information from these interviews, the Homeward Bound team, along with other service agencies, compiles a list of the people who are chronically homeless in our community. To be classified as chronically homeless, one must have been homeless for a year or longer and also living with at least one disabling condition: physical health issues; severe and persistent mental illness; and/ or addiction to drugs and alcohol. As of June 30, 2018, 192 people met that criteria. The list is far from static: even as people are placed in permanent housing and removed from the list, new people “age in” to chronic homelessness every month and are added to the list.
As part of its ambitious goal to end homelessness in Buncombe County, Homeward Bound recently partnered with local real estate agents to establish the REACH (Real Estate Agents Combating Homelessness) Fund. The REACH Fund and Homeward Bound are hosting a concert fundraiser featuring Josh Blake at the Salvage Station on Saturday, September 29, from 12–5 p.m. The free event will feature a variety of vendors who will donate a portion of proceeds to the REACH Fund.
For more information, visit homewardboundwnc.org.