Today’s batch of burning questions, my smart-aleck answers and the real deal:
Question: As winter approaches, I was wondering if there was any way the empty Kmart on Patton Avenue and Louisiana could be used to shelter people living on the streets? It seems like a missed opportunity to keep people warm and protected during the pandemic.
My answer: Boy, there’s just nothing humorous about homeless people being cold and not having shelter at night. Please do what you can to help the organizations that help the homeless.
Real answer: For this one, I went to Meredith Switzer, executive director of Homeward Bound, which helps local homeless people find housing and runs the AHOPE Center day shelter. Switzer was also involved in a move earlier this year that allowed the use of the Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville as a shelter for about 50 people living in homelessness amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Homeless shelters such as ABCCM and WNC Rescue Ministries are in a quandary now because of the pandemic, as they can’t take the chance of housing people who may be positive for COVID with those who aren’t.
The shelters are helping the homeless, but usually on “Code Purple” nights, when the temperature is at or below 32 degrees, shelters open their doors on an emergency basis. Right now they can’t do that.
Micheal Woods, executive director at Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, told the Citizen Times Nov. 19 that he’s been worried for much of the year about homeless people being left in the cold during the winter months. Emergency shelters’ options are limited during Code Purple nights due to COVID-19 protocols.
“Right now, there aren’t many options without a rapid testing system in the community,” Woods said. “We don’t have the ability to house people and bring them into the shelter safely. We can’t mix people seeking shelter during Code Purple nights with people who are COVID-19 free. That’s the difficulty that all shelters are facing right now.”
The shelters are housing some folks and have a testing system in place. They just can’t open their doors to all comers on nights when the temperatures drop below freezing.
So it makes sense to consider other options such as the Kmart building.
Sears Holdings Inc., which owned the Kmart, announced in October 2018 the store would close. In July 2019, Ingles Markets bought the 17.3 acre property at 1001 Patton Ave. for $8.5 million, saying it would like to redevelop the property.
But the building remains empty.
Switzer said Homeward Bound and other advocates for the homeless have considered several options to help house the homeless during the cold months, but spaces like Kmart are problematic.
“The problem with a space like Kmart that’s not currently in use is that these are massive spaces that are not being utilized,” Switzer said. “There’s a public works issue, like trying to heat it and setting up the water and other utilities. It’s trickier than it seems.”
A cavernous open space like Kmart would likely require some kind of partitioning to make heating efficient. Homeless advocates have considered spaces like the Kmart or the vacant Sears building at Asheville Mall, but they’ve not been found to be practical.
“When you get a space like that that’s so big, it’s also really hard to manage people,” Switzer said. “In the Harrah’s Cherokee Center, we had to secure areas and make sure to lock doors to make sure there were areas that weren’t accessible. That’s one of the biggest challenges with large, vacant buildings and warehouses — there’s the cost of trying to heat them, and then the fact that it’s hard to manage.”
While the Kmart is on a commercial corridor, it’s also about 2 miles from downtown, where most services for the homeless are located.
“It’s so much better when those experiencing homelessness can access other resources,” Switzer said. “It’s not ideal if they’re not centrally located.”
Switzer said they have talked to the city of Asheville about a return to the Harrah’s Cherokee Center, but the Maui Invitational basketball tournament starts this week, and organizers needed about two weeks beforehand to get it set up, she said.
Asheville’s last homelessness count put the number of homeless people in the city at 547, Switzer said, noting that number includes homeless people who have shelter space. On any given night, probably between 250-350 people are unsheltered at night, she said.
Switzer said Homeward Bound has secured 60 rooms at a local hotel for shelter, and a veterans program is housing another 40 people at two other hotels.
Switzer said they’ve been talking to a couple of churches about opening up on the coldest nights, and one downtown church is considering being a shelter for emergency nights.
In the meantime, Jubilee! Community, a nondenominational church on Wall Street downtown, is hosting a warming center for the homeless from 8 a.m.- 3 p.m. daily. Snacks and coffee are provided, as well as a place for the homeless to get out of the cold. The space can accommodate up to 40 people, Switzer said.
This is the opinion of John Boyle. To submit a question, contact him at 232-5847 or firstname.lastname@example.org