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One city's solution to sheltering homeless individuals? Buy a hotel

Posted at 12:18 PM, Sep 20, 2021

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — This is the story of three boring buildings. It's the story of a Days Inn, a Red Roof Inn, and an apartment complex, all spread out across Asheville, N.C.

They're all at the heart of efforts within the city to fight long-term homelessness.

The story starts with a man named Zach. He's discussing the bonsai trees and sunflowers he grows at the window of his apartment. He’s talking with his case manager.

Zach was homeless. A car wreck, he says, left him disabled. His disability check is his only income. He was staying on the streets until he discovered a nonprofit called Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina.

They placed Zach in a "boring building" downtown.

He pays rent. He’s stayed stable. He’s on a productive path, much like the other 18 residents at the Woodfin Apartments who’d otherwise be homeless.

"It's life or death,” Zach said of what the apartment means to him. “It means everything.”

For several years, the building was the only housing of its kind in the Asheville area, until a year that kept everyone at home, except those who don’t have one.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, shelters became potential super-spreaders. Services went virtual, difficult for those without internet access. In Asheville, and elsewhere, space became essential.

“We wanted folks to quarantine," said Jenny Moffatt, a housing director with Homeward Bound. “Well, if you don’t have a home and you don’t have anywhere to go, it’s not possible to do that.”

They found a different boring building.

Homeward Bound and the City of Asheville used the local Red Roof Inn to house 166 individuals. Cities nationwide took a similar approach, turning unused hotel space into refuge.

“I think it became more clear through COVID just how important housing is, and housing being health care," Moffatt said. "There’s a whole slew of things we’re able to help folks with once they get into housing and have some stability.”

They learned that lesson through success stories like Zach.

When Congress passed the American Rescue Plan this past March – and cities and counties received millions to help individuals experiencing homeless – the next step in Asheville became clear: a new boring building.

Homeward Bound is raising $13.5 million, including millions from the city and county, to convert a nearby Days Inn to permanent housing.

"It’s encouraging that I see homelessness become a priority on a much larger level," Moffatt said. "It's just that concept that everyone deserves to have a home,"

Homeward Bound closed on the Days Inn this summer. They’ll start renovations this winter and hope to welcome guests by next winter. It’s another boring building. But one building can make a big difference.