Among the communities hardest hit by the outbreak of COVID-19 are those that are heavily dependent on tourism. A recent study published on the website Volusion noted the disproportionate economic impact of the outbreak on retail, leisure and hospitality workers. 

According to that study, Asheville, North Carolina, was among the top 10 small and midsize metro areas with the highest percentage of such workers. 

Shannon Spencer is founder and director of the Asheville Poverty Initiative. Prior to the outbreak of the virus, she, her small staff and a team of volunteers provided meals to those in need from their 12 Baskets Cafe on Haywood Road in West Asheville. They’re now offering to-go meals outside the cafe – “as much or as little as you need,” their website promises.

Spencer says that since the outbreak, quite a number of those who show up are folks who’ve never stopped in before: families struggling to make rent; those with little or nothing to cushion their fall.   

The Asheville Poverty Initiative is also providing three meals a day, seven days a week, to 65 people who were previously unsheltered and have now been given temporary homes in a Red Roof Inn just off I-40.

Hillary Brown is the director of  Steady Collective, which offers harm-reduction services, referrals to care and education for people across the spectrum of addiction – active drug users and those in recovery. 

Steady Collective’s clients are among those Shannon Spencer is seeing in growing numbers, those who’ve lost their service-industry jobs or who, while still working, have been pushed further to the fringe by the economic downturn. Some are among the unsheltered temporarily housed in the Red Roof.

Steady Collective and the Asheville Poverty Initiative have a collaborative relationship. They’re among the organizations and individuals who’re working to maintain stability in a volatile time. 

Asheville businesses are reopening. Tourists are arriving. Folks are returning to much-needed jobs. But some in this previously burgeoning Appalachian city fear the worst is yet to come.

Higher Than Suspected

Western North Carolina, like the Appalachian region in general, has long suffered from a drug-related public-health crisis, and the people Steady Collective serves are especially vulnerable to COVID-19’s one-two punch: physical and economic. 

“Harm reductionists in this area of North Carolina had already been in a space of responding to crisis for a while – just a really high rate of overdose,” Brown says. “Buncombe County, consistently, every month, has one of the highest OD rates in the state.”

Since the outbreak, they say, Steady Collective is seeing people they haven’t seen in many years, people who’ve relapsed because of stress over the loss of housing and jobs. Most detox facilities aren’t taking new admissions and the ones that have remained open, they say, have wait lists of five days or more. 

For many of Brown’s clients, five days might as well be a month. “If somebody needs to go to detox, they need to go right away.”

“Across the country,” Orisha Bowers says, “we’re seeing an increase in overdoses and we’re seeing an increase in deaths.” 

Bowers is director of HepConnect, a Harm Reduction Coalition initiative that provides grant funding to organizations in five states, including four in Appalachia. The Steady Collective is among those receiving assistance. 

Bowers attributes the increase to, in part, people using drugs alone in order to social distance and to a loss of much-needed resources and supportive community. 

Steady Collective Director Hillary Brown sits masked with her organization’s mobile unit. Photo: Taylor Sisk/100 Days in Appalachia

Steady Collective has continued to provide services to its participants from a mobile unit that parks at three locations on a regular schedule, but Brown says it’s not ideal. Harm reduction is founded on building relationships and extending outreach, which is difficult to do in the current environment.

Shannon Spencer recognizes the criticality of getting people back to work, but questions reopening to tourists as the number of cases and deaths in North Carolina continue to climb, reaching a record number of hospitalizations the second week in June.

Brown fears that exposure is much higher than suspected. Tourists were still arriving through the first week of March, they say, “from all parts of the U.S. and outside of the U.S., and I’m sure some of those tourists stuck around. We have a lot of people whose second home is here and they’re going back and forth.” 

“I have a lot of concerns about lots of people already being infected and not knowing they’re infected. We know that lots of people are asymptomatic. And then homeless folks don’t have any choice but to be out in the world and interacting with people…. I’m concerned for them.”

Continuity Amid Interruption

Delineation between the haves and have-nots can be particularly stark in a community whose economy is driven by tourism, and a crisis such as COVID-19 underscores the tensions.

“It’s not a good time,” Brown says. “I think it’s sowing a lot of discord between classes here, because we have 8,000-plus hotel rooms in Buncombe County and we have people sleeping outside and being exposed to COVID-19.”

Brown says they’re concerned about the number of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic tourists that have made their way to Asheville and what that will mean for locals in her community, especially people who are already struggling with access to resources. Photo: Taylor Sisk/100 Days in Appalachia

While tending to immediate needs, Shannon Spencer looks ahead and asks, “How do we continue building community and deconstructing stereotypes across socio-economic categories when we can’t gather in safe ways?”

Prior to the outbreak, she says, there were too few spaces for “cross-connection.” Now, “when there’s fear about even gathering with your grandma, what does that mean? Is this deepening the gap and the divide in ways that are really going to penalize folks who already have been socially isolated?”

“We’re on the margins,” Bowers says of her harm-reduction constituents, “and the margins are bulging now.”

Recognizing that, Brown sees their work as more critical today than ever.

“This work really can be life-saving work,” Brown says. “I think it’s also work that shows people who are using drugs and have really been abandoned by all the systems and maligned by all the systems that there’s somebody who’s present for them … and  thinks that their life is valuable.”

“I’m glad that this could be consistent, that we’ve had no interruption in service,” Brown says of their harm-reduction work. “I’m really glad that there’s been continuity to this, because so much else has been interrupted.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct a misuse of pronouns.