By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – Asheville City Council now meets electronically, with members of the public invited to watch or call in. Public comment is accepted over the phone or by email up to 24 hours before the meeting and read or replayed during the broadcast. For the most recent meeting, several citizens had called to express disapproval of the city’s decision to move the homeless persons who have been staying at Harrah’s Cherokee Center (formerly the US Cellular Center) to the Red Roof Inn.
When Buncombe County issued its Stay-Home-Stay-Safe orders, existing homeless shelters had to close their doors to new clientele. Both state and local orders exempted the homeless for a number of reasons, among which were that the outdoors was their home and that many resist being sheltered. Still, humanitarian considerations – including the fact that several suffer chronic illnesses conducive to succumbing to COVID-19, as well as the fact certain lifestyle choices posed public health risks – called for providing options.
So, the city entered into an agreement with Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina to open Harrah’s as a temporary congregate center. The city also contracted with Axis Security for 24/7 monitoring to, for example, make sure clientele complied with Stay-Home-Stay-Safe orders. The city had contracted for 50 beds, but Harrah’s now housed only 30, with some returning to their former lifestyle and others agreeing to participate in government housing programs.
Best practices, at first, did not include housing the homeless in hotels, any explanation as to why to be branded as stereotyping members of that community. Now that the city’s contract with Homeward Bound was expiring, hotels were on the rise as a popular solution. The city’s staff report described the option as growing as a best practice and now reimbursable by FEMA.
The contract with Red Roof Inn called for giving the city access to 60 rooms at a rate of $44.99 per night plus taxes. The contract with Axis extended services provided at Harrah’s for about another $200,000. Wraparound services would be provided in the motel to help the homeless transition to permanent housing.
Persons participating in public comment on this issue complained that all hotels should be opened to the homeless, or, in the view of some, essential workers as well. Many spoke against having to be under a security watch. Several named Asheville Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball as implying homeless people cannot be trusted. The security detail, they said, was dehumanizing and a slight disproportionately harming people of color. One said what the city will spend on security, under the assumption that the homeless would put themselves or others at risk, would be better spent building houses for people. A third complaint was that the Red Roof Inn, at the I-40 interchange for Smoky Park Highway, was too far from transit and medical services.
Mayor Esther Manheimer apologized to Ball and asked the public in the future to address their concerns directly to the council. Ball took no offense, noting everybody was doing what they thought best to minister to those with less. She admitted the location was not ideal, but people were allowed to leave their rooms, and Mountain Mobility was providing shuttle service on-demand. In addition, hotel accommodations were being provided on top of other services the city and Homeward Bound continue to provide to those who camp.
Manheimer added the security services to be provided at the Red Roof Inn were the same as those the city’s homeless shelters provide, and Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell said what is being done is based on best practices from other cities in North Carolina. One thing that set Asheville’s strategy apart, though, was it was using this as an opportunity to link the homeless to services to help them progress to independent living or, if necessary, an appropriate form of assisted living.
Responding to communications she had received personally, Asheville Councilor Julie Mayfield said the city was not making top-down decisions but was working with many advocates for homeless people to develop ideas together for protecting and supporting a vulnerable population. In addition, she clarified that the city did not have the legal authority to seize hotels or tell their managers who to book. Instead, the city was taking advantage of a good offer for a partnership at a reasonable and reimbursable rate.
This time as last, during general public comment, over a dozen people urged members of the council to commandeer hotels for, in the new expression, “people facing housing insecurity.” Former Asheville Vice Mayor Chris Peterson was the exception. He complained that the local newspapers weren’t covering city budget work sessions, and that staff had misrepresented the city’s financial position. He said they claimed they were $4 million “in the hole,” when the number was more like $12-$15 million. He indicated all property tax collections ($70 million) plus sales tax revenues ($30 million) would be consumed by payroll alone.
Peterson further said the city’s estimate of tax collections was overly optimistic. He did not expect the city to have a tourist season, which makes up a large part of the economy. He further expected 50 to 100 businesses to “go broke.” He foresaw the country headed for a recession or depression that would linger about two years. He, therefore, asked the city to stop fudging and start cutting. Councilor Keith Young closed the meeting with a call for unity, noting the economic models he’d been seeing from the federal government were “horrendous.”