ASHEVILLE – Making shelter a right and boosting Buncombe County’s community paramedics, a program touted by police defunding activists, are among priorities listed by City Council members for an expected $26 million in federal pandemic aid.
The money would come from the recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan whose details Asheville and other local governments are awaiting to understand how exactly they can spend the money.
Council members talked about the massive aid injection — equal to about 13% of the city’s nearly $200 million budget — during a March 31-April 1 retreat. More recently several council members responded to questions about their priorities for the money, noting those could change after they learn more about spending guidelines.
Among priorities were focusing on rising homelessness, including making shelter a basic right, setting up a low-barrier shelter for people turned away from other places and expanding on the county’s community paramedic program that seeks to address mental health, substance abuse and other issues without the need for law enforcement intervention.
“I think it is pretty clear that cities have been experiencing an exponential increase in homeless,” said Mayor Esther Manheimer on April 2, noting she has heard similar stories from other mayors.
“One of the struggles that we have had as a city is we are getting a lot of complaints about homelessness encampments. I understand that, people are worried about cleanliness and safety. But until we have a place to offer people and resources, it’s difficult.”
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Implementing the ARP money was fourth among six new strategies picked by council members during the retreat:
Implementing COVID Relief Spending and Investment/Prioritizing Recovery Funding
- An equitable recovery
- Opportunities for small business
- Greater partnerships with the county
- City clean up
- Shelter as a basic right – Adopting a policy of housing first
- Work to contract with women owned and minority owned business for construction
- Increasing housing affordability and inventory
- Wrap around services for people being housed
On April 5 Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore followed that, saying “poor health care” was something to address.
Councilwoman Sage Turner, who is pushing the idea of shelter as a right, said in additional to homelessness aid, she wanted educational assistance for children at risk of falling behind, eviction and foreclosure prevention and help for public transit.
Turner said some South Asheville bus routes were already inadequate.
“COVID exacerbated the issue and is hindering workforce accessibility with 90-minute service.”
She and Councilwoman Gwen Wisler highlighted help for small businesses.
“I want to prioritize the businesses and individuals most affected which more than likely are minority businesses and people of color,” Wisler said.
But before that, Wisler said the city should cover its expenses in responding to the pandemic as well as lost revenue.
Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith and councilwomen Antanette Mosley and Kim Roney did not respond to priority questions.
Asheville does not yet have a number for all pandemic costs and is waiting on the federal aid spending rules to learn how to calculate them, city Interim Chief Financial Officer Tony McDowell said April 5.
In a March 23 budget work session, McDowell told council members the pandemic had a $6.9 million effect on transit, parking and Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville.
Community paramedics, shelters
The county’s community paramedics are now part of a pilot program that Buncombe commissioners have said they are also interested in expanding.
The pilot started by giving emergency center operators the option to route 911 calls for overdoses and substance abuse crises to the new community EMTs or peer support specialists.
Advocates for cutting law enforcement spending point to such programs as ways to reduce encounters with police that can escalate into violence.
A first step, said Manheimer, will be merging the city and county’s emergency call center, so the paramedics can respond both in and outside the the city.
“Right now, literally, they sit in the same room and it is not a fully integrated system,” the mayor said.
After that money could go to ambulances, equipment and new personnel. Then the EMTs would need more places to take people, since current shelters fill quickly and often don’t accept people dealing with mental health or substance abuse crises, she said.
In one step to build that capacity, the nonprofit Homeward Bound has purchased a hotel on Tunnel Road.
Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.