Understanding Homelessness

Read our white paper on homelessness here.

Why do people become homeless?

Many paths lead to homelessness.  Job loss.  Mental illness.  Death of a family member.  Addiction.  Domestic violence.  Medical emergencies.  But these are crises that we all experience, whether we have housing or not.  You can probably think of someone in your life who was laid off during the recession, or who has a drinking problem, or who’s on medication for depression.  The difference is that those people in your life most likely have someone—maybe you—they can turn to when they need support, whether it’s financial, practical, or emotional.  When people hit a bump in the road and don’t have that support system to turn to, a normal life crisis can spiral out of control and result in losing housing and stability.

Who’s homeless?

Single mothers who’ve escaped domestic violence.  Veterans with PTSD.  Young adults who’ve aged out of the foster care system and have no one to teach them life skills.  In Buncombe County, about 500 people experience homelessness on any given night, and more than 3,000 people experience it throughout the course of a year.  38% of them are veterans.  11% of them are children.  Very few of them have come to Asheville homeless; 75% used to have housing in Buncombe County before they became homeless, and many of them are from this area originally.

What’s it like to be homeless?

In Asheville, a single man can stay in emergency shelter at Western Carolina Rescue Ministries or Salvation Army downtown; if he’s a veteran, he also has the option of ABCCM’s Veteran’s Restoration Quarters.  Women and children can stay at the Rescue Ministries and Salvation Army too, or in transitional housing at ABCCM’s Steadfast House.  Many people stay outdoors, sleeping in parks or campsites—some because they can’t get into the shelters because of rules or capacity, some because their mental illnesses make shelters a scary environment.  During the day, many people visit the library or other public places, or they go to Homeward Bound’s A HOPE Day Center for basic services and a safe place to rest.

Being homeless is a traumatic experience. The experience is often terrifying, exhausting, and dehumanizing.  People don’t look you in the eye or treat you with respect.  You’re susceptible to hate crime violence, theft, and assault.  You’re exhausted and undernourished, with almost no respite.  You struggle through the human services system, trying to make it to appointments you don’t have transportation to where you’re required to supply documents like your birth certificate or income verification, which are hard to keep track of when you don’t have a mailing address to receive them at or a safe place to keep them.

What about the people who choose to be homeless?

They don’t.  It’s that simple.  No child wants to be homeless as an adult, and no adult is proud of losing their housing and depending on others to meet his or her basic needs.  Sometimes when people become homeless, they only thing they have left is their self-respect, and it’s important to them to assert that they’re not victims but that they’ve instead opted in to their way of life.

Sometimes when people become and stay homeless, it gets hard to see a way out.  Being homeless requires a skill set that people in housing don’t have: you have to know where to find food & safe places to sleep, how to survive with almost nothing.  Likewise, living in housing can require a skill set that people who’ve been homeless for many years may have lost: grocery shopping, paying rent on time, dealing with loud neighbors.  Sometimes, when someone’s been homeless for a long time, they may say they’re choosing it, because they no longer remember what it’s like to be in housing, and they’re scared of the prospect.

What’s the solution?

Housing + support.  People become homeless when they don’t have a support system to help them weather a normal crisis. Homeward Bound responds by providing housing and helping create a support system so we can end homelessness, one household at a time.  It’s called the Housing First model, and it’s a national best practice and proven solution. Housing First is cost-effective, sustainable, and humane.  In Asheville, it can cost as much as $23,000 for one person to be homeless for one year, between emergency shelter & jail stays, emergency room & detox visits, and other high usage of expensive public services.  But if we pay for someone’s housing plus the case management services to help them overcome the issues they face, it costs about $10,000 per person for the first year.  And not only does it save our community money…it also works!  Rather than being homeless, getting into housing, losing it, and cycling through again, Housing First clients have the support they need to stabilize and stay housed.  Homeward Bound’s Pathways to Permanent Housing program has housed over 1,150 clients since 2006, and has an 89% retention rate.

What does housing look like?

Most of our clients live in apartments. When we move people into their own apartments, they either go into public housing or scattered site housing.  Public housing is through the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, and it’s based on income; clients pay sliding scale rent to the Housing Authority based on what they make.  Scattered site housing is private rental property with private landlords who charge us fair market rate or below.  We put the lease in the client’s name to build credit, but the check comes from Homeward Bound, so the landlord is assured of rent.  Landlords can always call on case managers if they’re concerned about a tenant’s behavior.  It’s a win for everyone involved.

Why should I care about homelessness?

Homelessness affects our whole community: its economy, safety, health, and sense of well-being.  When we end homelessness, we see resources freed up to meet other needs, local businesses and tourism faring better, and our neighbors restored to lives of wholeness and dignity.

Moreover, if you aren’t homeless yourself, there’s likely a reason for it.  Chances are someone’s invested in you along the way.  Maybe growing up your parents helped you with your homework, made sure you had enough food, helped you figure out a way to go to college.  You probably had—and have— someone in your life to call when your car breaks down or your partner has to go to the hospital.  Think about what it would take for you to become homeless; think about how many levels of support would have to fail you before you ended up without a place to go.

Homelessness is such a big problem.  What can I do about it?

You CAN have an impact! You can donate money, time and items to help us house people and keep them housed. Check out our Donate Stuff, Donate Time, and Donate Money pages to learn more about how you can be part of the solution. A small financial donation goes a long way towards someone’s housing. Your unused household items can help furnish someone’s apartment.

When you hear people joke about ‘bums’ and ‘hobos,’ let them know that people without housing are people exactly like them…they just don’t have homes.  Choose to give money to agencies that END homelessness with supportive housing, rather than to individuals on the streets. Be informed about homeless services, so that when people ask you for help, you can point them in the right direction.  Look someone who’s homeless in the eye, and treat them with the kindness and respect you want for yourself.

Is ending homelessness really possible?

Yes!  People may always experience housing crisis; they don’t always have to become homeless.  What we mean when we talk about ending homelessness is that we provide housing & support for everyone in our community who’s currently homeless, as quickly as possible.  When that happens, we free up the resources we used to provide them emergency services & use those resources for homelessness prevention instead, focusing our efforts & our money on keeping people in housing during a crisis, so that they don’t become homeless in the first place.  Just like with your health or vehicle maintenance, investing in prevention is always the most effective route, but we can’t do that while there are people living on the streets who need those resources to survive.  In the same way we shifted our focus away from patching the problem with emergency shelter towards solving it with housing, we’ll eventually shift our focus away from providing housing to people without it towards helping people who have it keep it.

Be informed!  Check out the following resources:



Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative


Coordinates our community’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, can provide general and statistical information on homelessness & homeless services in Asheville.

United Way’s 2-1-1


Provides information and referral on area services and non-profit organizations.



North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness


Membership organization with tools and resources for advocacy and policy change across N.C.



National Alliance to End Homelessness


Advocacy, policy development, and information (research, fact sheets on homelessness, etc.).

U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness


Developed and is implementing 2010’s Opening Doors: the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness.