Mass media conveyed a sense of community outrage over the removal of a homeless camp under the I-240 bridge in downtown Asheville. City Manager Debra Campbell wanted to assure the public the city was being as humane as humanly possible in dealing with a multifaceted issue – assistance is always welcome.
At the last meeting of Asheville City Council, City Manager Debra Campbell led a discussion that was clearly damage control. Early in her presentation, she inserted, “If you don’t hear anything I say, I hope you will remember….”
The city had already posted a response to the situation on February 1, but, from the way people were talking, another side of the story was controlling the narrative. Called into question was the removal of a homeless camp on Lexington Avenue under the I-240 overpass. In an official response, the NCDOT explained it had responded to complaints about people setting fires and being too close to high-speed traffic.
According to the web post, the city had forwarded a single complaint to the DOT, which had already received “many” complaints itself. The DOT, as the owner of the property, is the party responsible for who can and can’t camp thereon. Representatives of the Asheville Police Department explained it is city policy not to remove homeless persons encamped on a city-owned property unless there is a clear and present health or safety issue. For example, under the current guidelines, the city would not be allowed to remove the 99% for camping in front of city hall and racking up a huge lawn maintenance bill for taxpayers; they could, however, for the feces that were piling up.
A similar fire under the Russ Avenue bridge in Waynesville earlier this winter. Police arriving on the scene discovered mattresses, furniture, and a kerosene heater; suggesting a homeless campfire had gotten out of control. The bridge had to be closed for the night, and schools and businesses were closed the next day because the fire had melted a mainline of AT&T’s optical fiber.
City staff kept repeating, “We can do better.” The DOT statement acknowledged the agency had not followed local protocols for removing the homeless. By way of contrast, several said the city does follow its own guidelines, which comply with those of the CDC, respecting homeless camps on city property in winter during the pandemic. Representatives of the police department explained things are different for camping on private property. In those situations, the police typically receive a report of trespassing and respond by enforcing ordinances. They further clarified each homeless person has his personal set of issues, to which police are trained to shape their response. Whatever the situation, the police try to connect the afflicted person with government services.
Campbell said ongoing discussions are working to get the DOT on the same page as the city and do a better job of letting the homeless and those affected by their camps understand the rules as well. For example, the city’s rules require that, barring an imminent hazard, campers be served advance notice of a bulldozing. The officers, per Campbell, followed all the rules. Persons at the camp were given time to gather their belongings, although Councilwoman Kim Roney argued persons off-campus when the notice was served would not have had that opportunity. Campbell continued, the police not only offered “resources,” they offered to drive people to a safe place to stay for the night.
Efforts for the Homeless
Moving past the blame game, Homeward Bound’s Emily Ball highlighted what the city is doing for the homeless and what it would like to do should resources become available. She told how homeless shelters had to “lockdown” during COVID because they are congregate settings serving persons who typically suffer “social determinants of health” with limited access to hygiene. The Red Roof Inn has availed 60 rooms to the city, and, for the winter chill, the First Congregational Universal Church of Christ (FCUCC) downtown has made room in its building for about 50.
In addition, the city receives $1.9 million annually from HUD to help house people. This year, “a significant amount” of additional federal funding was received for COVID relief. Ball said the shelters are not overflowing; what the city needs are “low-barrier shelters,” which would not require admittees to, for example, be sober, pass a breathalyzer test, or present a valid form of ID.
The subrecipients of the federal funding passed through the city are Pisgah Legal Services, which is helping people avoid eviction; Homeward Bound, which helps the general homeless population with a special focus on social determinants of health; Helpmate, which targets victims of domestic violence; Eliada Home, which serves youth aged 18-24; and a newcomer, Sunrise Community. The latter is now working out of FCUCC. It was founded in 2014 by veteran Kevin Mahoney, who saw peer-to-peer therapy was a missing piece in available local services for persons suffering from mental illness and chemical dependencies. The program has since grown to include several related programs like trauma support, community education, overdose follow-up, and jail diversion.