Asheville – The City of Asheville took action against several homeless camps in an effort to remove them from city property, but members of council and the community were not happy about it.
“We have a reputation of being a progressive and welcoming – Sorry, I am really upset – an inclusive place, and we’re marketed as such. We also have such visible disparities because we have abundant resources. And, we’re in Appalachia. We have a rich history of taking care of each other in really rough times and sharing what we have. So, I just want to express that I’m embarrassed that we’re evicting people in the name of safety,” said Asheville City Councilwoman Kim Roney at the board’s last meeting.
Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell was sympathetic. The problem was immense and has only gotten worse with COVID; and, while staff was working long and hard, along with partner organizations, much complexity had to be unraveled and addressed.
Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball shared that the city is working on sheltering the homeless as well as getting them into permanent housing, and all interventions are designed to make sure everybody is safe and treated with dignity. However, amidst a national trend of skyrocketing homelessness in the COVID era, the city has seen fit to shut down some encampments. Areas on the city’s radar include Lexington Avenue under the I-240 bridge, the west bank of the French Broad River, Cherry Street, Aston Park, and Martin Luther King Park.
She said encampments are being monitored for safety, and campers in communities posing threats will be served notices to quit at least 7-30 days in advance. As notices go out, staff of the city or its affiliate organizations will let those being displaced know about shelter options, all of which are in the downtown area and close to food ministries and other services. Shutdowns have been initiated following acts of violence among campers and toward neighboring communities, she said.
The city is now looking for churches and other organizations to help provide temporary sheltering, not just in freezing weather. Anticipated COVID relief funding from the federal government will be spent on training and/or hiring community emergency management technicians and setting up a crisis care center as well as one or more low-barrier shelters. The low-barrier shelters admit homeless persons on their own terms and conditions; they will not turn away anybody who is intoxicated, other-gendered, or just plain not interested in many shelters’ faith-based mission.
Roney asked how many displaced campers had taken the city up on its offers to provide temporary housing, and Ball said the city had no way of knowing; it wasn’t going to hound people. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer added the city had sufficient capacity to house all of them, but not all are interested in getting off the streets. Campbell apologized again for not having all the answers; “no one does.” However, she said she will see that staff does all in its power to keep all in the city limits safe.
Public comment was antagonistic. Victoria Estes; an activist supporting climate protection, defunding the police, Obamacare, and more; said the city wasn’t being honest. The police, she said, were harassing the homeless while city government “pandered to well-off tourists and rich, white homeowners.” After suggesting the city try what it is already doing, housing the homeless in motels with wraparound services; she said if the city continues oppressing the poor and needy, “You will receive pushback.”
Melanie Noyes, a CBD extractor and advocate for legalization, clarified that the city was only attempting to evict persons camped on city-owned lands. “Surely this is illegal!” Removing camps only “creates chaos and spreads COVID,” she protested. “Housing is a human right,” and until the city could put the homeless up in a motel, which it is already doing, “Housing camps should continue to take up space that is rightfully theirs.”
What’s more, “To any shabily-housed person in Asheville who may witness what you consider to be a – quote – safety concern at an encampment, I beg you to mind your &@#^ business.” Noyes continued, exhorting members of the public not to call the police should they not be minding said business, because the violence in the camps is the trauma induced when cops try to displace the homeless; especially, since the recent killing of Daunte Wright. She closed with, “Defund APD and stop the evictions, or you’ll be held accountable.”
Veronica Coit, a reporter with the Asheville Blade who contends she was dragged from her car and abused by cops during the summer riots, read CDC guidelines to council. While the CDC says camps should be avoided in the first place, it states, “Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.” It also obliges the city to provide sanitary and stocked restroom facilities to the camps 24-7. Coit then scolded members of council for their inadequate response.
Nathan Prentice, one of the medics who staffed the medical tent stocked with water bottles for summer rioters, said Manheimer was not being honest, because to offer a person shelter where they’re required to present a photo ID, leave their dog behind, or submit to a search is not an option. He said defunding the police was the answer to the homelessness problem, and if the city continued to eliminate encampments, they would be declaring war on the poor, “And that is a fight you will be on the very wrong side of, and it’s a fight you are not going to win.”