By Emma Castleberry
As COVID-19 descended upon our community, the City of Asheville and the local nonprofit Homeward Bound came together to find a solution for sheltering local citizens who were living outside. “On any given night in Asheville, between 500 and 600 people are homeless, and don’t have the security of a roof over their heads,” says Meredith Switzer, executive director at Homeward Bound. “Home is our safe haven even when times are ‘normal.’ When you don’t have a home, a crisis like COVID-19 can be deadly, especially for the chronically homeless, who, because of the toll it takes from living outside coupled with addiction and mental-health issues, are far more susceptible to illness.”
Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville offered up its large, downtown convention center space and the three organizations pulled together an emergency shelter in just two days. Other community partners made contributions, too: UNCA provided mattresses, Rescue Mission provided blankets, Mission Hospital provided sheets and 12 Baskets Community Cafe and Haywood Street Congregation organized the meals. Dale Fell Health Center screened all who entered the temporary shelter and continues to do screenings every morning.
The temporary shelter provided 50 beds, all of which were filled within two days of its opening. Those sheltering at Harrah’s are not permitted to leave and return, and 16 people have left since the shelter opened. “Living in a big, open indoor space and not being able to leave and then return is not for everyone,” says Eleanor Ashton, senior resource development director at Homeward Bound. “The shelter residents are very appreciative for the protection that Harrah’s Cherokee Center provides but, as you can imagine, being confined to a space with many other people can feel very restrictive.” Once someone leaves, the open bed cannot be filled unless the incoming person has been quarantined.
Meals are provided throughout the day, starting with breakfast and coffee at 6 a.m. “Lunch and dinner are brought in by various community partners and are set out during meal times,” says Nicole Brown, homeless services director. “The rest of the day is really spent watching movies, playing games including cornhole, and folks working on case management needs. We have spent a significant amount of time helping folks connect with medical care and stimulus checks.” The library also donated five computers to the shelter, so those staying at Harrah’s are able to connect with the outside world and look for jobs.
“Before we had the shelter here, they were telling people to ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe,’” says a female resident of the shelter who chose to remain anonymous. “But I had no home, I had no shelter, I had no food. I was scared. And then this place opened and it’s like a home for us. It’s been amazing to see.”
For more information about Homeward Bound’s services, visit HomewardBoundWNC.org.