Asheville – Asheville City Councilwoman Sage Turner said the message from the slide showing crime rates in and around large encampments was “horrible,” “shocking,” and “very concerning.” She added, “There’s a lot happening in these encampments, and I don’t, for one, feel comfortable with allowing them to continue when these are the circumstances that occur when they’re operating.” Turner faulted, “limited media, and sometimes confusing media, and incorrect messaging.”
Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore expressed concern about dangers to vulnerable people, like children in the neighborhood walking through needles, the mentally ill viewed as easy prey, or destitute people willing to take risks for money. She told her peers it was their job to protect the city, and as they consent to let encampments grow, they’re not even protecting the homeless.
The slide showed that, over the last two years, within the city limits, 14 percent of violent crimes and 8.5 percent of property crimes had occurred within a 500-foot radius of large encampments. 25 percent of violent crimes and 20 percent of property crimes had occurred within 1,000 feet. More specifically, 151 aggravated assaults, 105 overdoses, 105 motor vehicle thefts, 54 robberies and 25 rapes occurred in the areas in question. Two homicides and one suspicious death occurred in the encampments.
The latter involved the body of a woman buried in an encampment in the woods near the East Asheville Walmart shopping center. The body was, “under a pile of litter, which also had needles.” A separate incident involved a man who, after overdosing, remained undiscovered for days in his tent.
Camping on City Property
Reviewing the law, Captain Michael Lamb of the Asheville Police Department (APD) said it was illegal to camp on city property as well within the city limits. Neither tents nor shelters are permissible on city property. Sidewalks, while they are public property, may not be obstructed. In addition, public parks are closed from 10pm to 6am. Violation of any of the above laws constitutes an arrestable misdemeanor. If people set up camp on municipal property, the police respond in accordance with statutes for trespassing. Police eviction of campers from private property is complaint-driven.
Lamb said when the police break up encampments, they treat all persons with dignity and respect and offer to connect them to government services. This, he said, works well with small encampments. The large encampments, however, have fostered “health and safety issues,” with large increases in both perpetrators and victims.
Lamb reviewed some changes the city had made to policies and procedures to deal with large encampments. All parks are now cleaned daily, with needle removal added to the routine; all downtown parks have a warden; and trash is picked up at least twice daily in Pritchard Park. Signs have been erected in parks spelling out acceptable behavior, and enforcement has been more “proactive,” even though the department is operating with a 42% vacancy rate.
When the city receives a complaint, city-funded Street Outreach Team members from Homeward Bound will first attempt to connect the homeless to services. Then, representatives of the city will inform those remaining they have 24-48 hours to leave.
The police now carry food boxes prepared by Hearts with Hands in their cars. During Code Purple, they have even taxied persons to shelters. “In most cases,” said Lamb, people are compliant, and “we do not issue any enforcement action against these campers. But occasionally, we do have activists/anarchists who refuse to leave or obstruct camp cleanup and tent removal.” He explained anarchists have been using the city’s seven days of advanced notice to recruit reinforcements to enlarge encampments.
Lamb said some agitators from the Aston Park encampment have since pled guilty. The court date for Greenleaf Clarke, of Massachusetts, has been continued. Clarke was charged with assaulting a government official, two counts of resisting officers, and larceny. During public comment, Clarke said, “All [Lamb] does is pound on peoples’ tents at 7am with false offers of hotel rooms to trick them into abandoning their camps.”
Councilwoman Kim Roney asked how campers could retrieve their belongings after they had been confiscated, and Lamb indicated some urban myths had been circulating. When the homeless are asked to break camp, they are typically given seven days’ notice, with exceptions made for imminent health hazards, like a meth lab or overdose investigations. Most homeless people take their belongings with them, but sometimes they leave behind things like pallets or tents that “were already there.” Property owners are responsible for clearing what’s left behind. Lamb said APD has never slashed tents.
Roney didn’t believe Lamb. Instead, she viewed the city’s practices of busting up large encampments as an attack on the poor, an exercise in displacement and dispossession that kicked the down-and-out even lower. Roney has long been a supporter of CDC guidelines calling for local governments to leave encampments alone, and yet provide sanitation, running water, and toilets. Those guidelines have since been updated. Roney also advocated for providing needle receptacles in the name of harm reduction.
Then Councilwoman Gwen Wisler asked what the city, as a destination for services, was going to do to manage an ever-growing case load. Emily Ball of Homeward Bound said it is typical of U.S. cities to view themselves as magnets for vagrancy, while Lamb pulled off the top of his head a few stories of homeless people from out of town that he had helped in recent days. Wisler said she and her husband had just visited downtown Wilmington and not seen anybody she would identify as homeless.