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People Without Shelter Are More Vulnerable To COVID-19

Lilly Knoepp
The spread of COVID-19 has increased the need for shelter across WNC.


The city of Asheville opened the region’s largest homeless shelter in the wake of COVID-19 at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville. 

More rural counties in Western North Carolina are still working on plans of their own. 

Jackson County’s homeless program – which puts people in need of shelter in hotels - planned to scale down after cold weather ended at the start of April. 

But the spread of COVID-19 has increased the need for shelter, says HERE in Jackson County INC. founding member Destri Leger. HERE stands for Housing, Equity, Resources, and Education. 

“For the COVID-19 response, the thought process behind it is not just for personal safety but it's for community safety and it avoids community health risks,” says Leger. 

Leger says in March a family working with HERE had to be tested for COVID-19. They were told to quarantine but couldn’t because they had no shelter. The lack of access to basic hygiene and the inability to follow CDC guidelines made them vulnerable, says Leger.  

“When they can’t do those things they are at an increased risk of getting the virus and also spreading it,” says Leger. 

Ultimately, the family tested negative but the lack of shelter put the community at risk. The Jackson County government made a point to continue to allow HERE access to hotels despite lodging accommodation restrictions. Right now, there are over 35 people being housed.

“I would say for communities that aren't considering how to address this need and this public health concern - that this needs to come to the front burner,” says Leger. 

The program will operate without a cap on participants for the time being, and Leger says they plan to let them stay as long as they can. 

There currently aren’t any year-round homeless shelters for adults in the 80 mile gap between Murphy and Asheville.


Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.