It’s Official: APD puts longstanding outreach approach to homelessness into policy

An approach developed four years ago by the Ashville Police Department to interacting with people experiencing homelessness has proved so successful it is now official departmental policy.

The APD’s homelessness strategy prioritizes connecting people with available services and housing assistance over making arrests, and giving people using illegal camps seven days to vacate. The success of the procedure is cited as a major factor in reducing chronic homelessness in Asheville, and in April, the APD added the approach to its policy manual and began department-wide training in such interactions.

In 2005, Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commission adopted a 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, and Council supported the establishment of the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative and the “Housing First” model. That approach calls for providing housing to people experiencing homelessness with no strings attached – a model that gained big successes on a national level.

In 2010, the APD applied that philosophy when responding to calls about homeless camps, introducing people there to service providers and handing out information outlining where to find housing assistance.

“We adopted a protocol that gives people seven days to vacate a camp, while at the same time connecting them to services,” says Sgt. Jackie Stepp. The department also partnered with outreach groups like Homeward Bound and the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville. “The idea is to connect them with services and divert them away from the justice system, and not go into a situation anticipating making an arrest.”

Heather Dillashaw, Director of the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative, says the APD’s participation and outreach is a major factor in reducing chronic homelessness in Asheville from 293 identified in 2005 to 47 by the beginning of 2013, an 84% drop.

“It has absolutely made a huge difference,” Dillashaw says. “We certainly would not have made this kind of headway without the APD’s work early on. Their experience provided us with information on who among the homeless community were drawing on our public safety resources, so we knew where to focus our efforts.”

In tandem with the policy’s adoption, officers have also been undergoing Crisis Intervention Training, an approach to interacting one-on-one in crisis situations. CIT was developed in order to find constructive ways to approach and assist people in mental or emotional crisis. Like the homelessness policy, it seeks to establish relationships and find solutions rather than put people in jail. And despite its primary role, the training has proven a valuable tool when approaching people experiencing homelessness or in other interactions with the public. “People in these situations don’t necessarily have a mental issue,” Stepp said. “But there is often tension when you go into a camp and this helps us establish that we are there to help, and are not there as adversaries.”

Information about resources available to people experiencing homelessness can be found by calling 828-259-5851.