Homeless Organization… And Developer?

6 min read

Homeward Bound wants to switch from case management to construction 

In just two decades, “housing first” has turned from an academic idea into formal policy, becoming the default national strategy for curbing homelessness. The rationale of the model is that it’s cheaper and more humane to permanently house the chronically homeless than leave them on the streets, where they transfer between shelters, hospitals and jails. In 2002, President Bush set a federal goal to end homelessness in ten years, viewing housing first as the main strategy. President Obama expanded this in 2010, with the more specific goal of ending veteran homelessness through HUD-VASH vouchers that mix rental assistance with case management. These measures caused a startling 17 percent decline in total homelessness from 2005 to 2012.

The paradigm shift has meant changes for local homeless service agencies – who deal directly with the problem, and receive the federal monies to solve it. Rather than providing temporary services, like day shelters, they now focus on finding the chronically homeless permanent housing, often providing case management between challenging tenants and landlords. Now one North Carolina organization just wants to build that housing itself.

The organization is Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina, an agency dedicated to ending homelessness in Buncombe and Henderson counties. Homeward Bound focuses particularly on long-term, chronically homeless residents in the Asheville area, as opposed to ones who have moved in from points beyond. Because of its location, Homeward Bound’s workload transcends that which is found in the average small city.

Asheville, like a select few cities throughout Appalachia, attracts rich migrants due to its history, natural beauty and artistic vibe. This makes it one of the more expensive patches in the region, with median home prices of $261,000, and a vacancy rate below the national average. As a result, Asheville has a chronic homelessness problem. According to a report by the Citizen Times, a local daily, 509 homeless were counted on a one-day tally in 2016. This was higher than in 2005, when a local plan was written to end homelessness.

Homeward Bound has changed its course over the years to reflect these local and federal conditions. It opened in 1988 as a “hospitality house,” aka a temporary emergency shelter that provided coffee, hot showers and resting spots for the homeless. Homeward Bound pivoted to permanent housing in 2006, serving as a liaison between the homeless and the landlords housing them. Its role is summarized in two ways: first, Homeward Bound provides rental assistance for the homeless. Second, it finds landlords who will actually house them, and then becomes a case manager that resolves conflicts between the two parties.

The types of landlords that Homeward Bound deals with has changed, however, since this 2006 shift. The first main landlord was the local public housing authority, which housed the homeless in its publicly-run stock. But as units grew scarcer, Homeward Bound began shopping the private market.

Sometimes, the organization finds new, high-quality supportive housing designed specifically for the homeless, since some of that is being built around Asheville. Last year, for example, the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry broke ground on Transformation Village, which added 150 beds for homeless women and children. But generally, low-income housing there is confined to something humbler and less geared for the homeless. Ben Fehsenfeld, the communications manager for Homeward Bound, says that at any one time, the agency is working with 50 different private landlords to house its clients. Often these are owners of trailer parks.

Since 2006, Homeward Bound has housed 1,920 people through this public and private formula, and 89 percent have not become homeless again. Some of these clients were temporarily homeless to begin with, and just needed a quick boost from Homeward Bound to get their lives back in order. Others, though, are dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues, and will need assistance in perpetuity, says Nicole Brown, the director of homeless services at Homeward Bound. This means that much staff work goes into the aforementioned case management. A lot of landlords, after all, won’t accept certain people unless they know Homeward Bound’s service workers will have a hands-on role in the relationship. Even then, some tenants still get evicted, since for the landlord they become more trouble than they’re worth.

Therein lies the problem: private landlords won’t necessarily have the ability nor tolerance for dealing with mentally ill tenants. Nor, says Brown, are there an abundance of trailer parks anyway; such a development style isn’t rationale to build in a region demanding higherthan-average price points. So Homeward Bound wants to develop its own housing, since it can then build to the specifications of the homeless, and manage them on-site thereafter.

“Not only do we want to house clients,” said Brown. “We want to house extremely high needs clients. There’s not many developers out there who are going to be able to build the housing that we want. And also we want the control. We want to decide who stays and who goes.

Because we don’t want anyone to go. We want to work with those clients. Whereas if you work with a private landlord, they get to make the call of who’s evicted or not.”

Brown said that Homeward Bound is short, at this point, on details of how this development would work. The organization still needs financing, which could include leveraging local Asheville philanthropists who already donate; and it must decide on specific development models. But having autonomy is the point.

If Homeward Bound makes this direct leap into unit construction, it will further delve into a housing first model that now has successful examples nationwide. A 2009 study found that in Seattle, housing first strategies led to costs savings in the local health and criminal justice systems. Similar findings were made in a more recent case study in Denver. Fehsenfeld wrote by email that in Asheville, it costs Homeward Bound $10,000 per year to house someone who’s been chronically homeless. That, he said, was a savings of $23,000 per person were they to live outdoors. These savings, along with the wider local and national goal of ending homelessness, is why Homeward Bound wants more housing built. And now, it wants to be the one building it.

Story Contacts:
Nicole Brown
Director of Homeless Services,
Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina

Ben Fehsenfeld
Communications Director, Homeward Bound