Asheville – Upon concluding the formal part of the agenda, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer brought to the floor, for informal discussion only, concerns about basic city services. Manheimer merely indicated an interest in reconsidering how council would spend the city’s portion of American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funding. This also followed two weeks of bad press on WLOS about litter, needle droppings, urination and defecation, fights, illegal drug use, drug dealing, vagrancy, break-ins, and other quality-of-life issues affecting properties neighboring the AHOPE Center.
First on the list was the general state of cleanliness downtown and elsewhere. Manheimer said it was in part due to a shortage of staffing, and Councilwoman Sage Turner contributed public works staffing was down 40%; transportation, 60%; and police, 44%. In addition, noted Turner, individual do-gooders and volunteer crews that used to clean the city regularly are now refraining out of fear of COVID contamination. Councilwoman Kim Roney recommended setting up more official receptacles for safely depositing hypodermic needles and maintaining them regularly like other city infrastructure.
Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore said the city needed to start with a thorough, deep cleaning and then work with community partners for ongoing cleanups. That may be the case, but Councilwoman Gwen Wisler said the city had to seek root causes behind the current trashing. Council shouldn’t, for example, just pressure-wash more often and “throw resources forever” at the problem. ARPA funding, she said, would dry up in three years.
The next item on the mayor’s list was public safety. She said she and Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith had been holding meetings with Police Chief David Zack. The city had already raised salaries for police officers, but she was wondering if there was more that could be done, such as offering hiring bonuses or making adjustments further up the pay scale. The police department is already working with a recruitment consultant.
Manheimer said that while council continues to strive with partners to reimagine public safety, members need to remember to support the police and express more appreciation for their sacrifices. This left some councilwomen shocked to think anything they had said or done had been construed as not backing the blue. Manheimer also said she is hearing complaints from constituents not receiving the levels of service they expect, such as getting an officer to respond to a burglary.
The mayor’s third item was the “incredibly exacerbated … crisis around homelessness.” She described the current situation as the aftermath of a perfect storm of COVID forcing people out of jobs and then housing while shelters closed or reduced capacity, just as the county lost funding for operating the RHA Behavioral Health Urgent Care service 24-7.
Manheimer said she’d been touring every facility and talking to every provider she could, and that has fortified her support for hiring a consultant, as the city, county, and Dogwood Health Trust are working to do. In North Carolina, Manheimer continued, counties, not cities, are set up to be the providers of social services. Counties have health departments and provide homeless shelters and workforce training. Cities have to coordinate with providers, and Manheimer said she was finding that Asheville was not well-coordinated.
Providing for the homeless, she said, was not a matter of feeding or sheltering for a day. Instead, it involved not only figuring out how to help people through their current crises, but connecting them with all the government services they may need.
Roney recommended following the Missoula, Montana model of providing managed campsites with bathrooms, laundry services, transportation, and staffing. Manheimer said she did not support that idea. The concept is being used in places where there is inadequate shelter space, which is not the case in Asheville. Turner clarified, if shelter is available, the city shouldn’t be leaving people exposed to the health and safety risks of urban camping.
Manheimer said even if the city did not have enough shelter capacity, these arrangements are run by nonprofits, and there are none in Asheville offering to do this. Seeing managed campsites gaining no traction with her peers, Roney next suggested at least changing the city’s policies for using police power to charge people with trespassing and dismantle campsites instead of responding to burglaries.
Bringing all three of the issues together was the AHOPE Center. Giving no details, Manheimer first wanted to be clear that the city did not own or operate the facility; it only gives millions of dollars to Homeward Bound, which does. Then, she said Homeward Bound had developed a 90-day safety plan, and she had met with former city councilman Jan Davis, who runs a business in the area.
Councilwoman Antanette Mosley thanked the mayor for calling attention to the fact that behaviors are driving the historic African-American church out of the area. The church, in fact, used to serve the homeless until it became too dangerous. Mosley spoke cryptically about something she had seen, and said it wasn’t just homeless people defiling the city.
Leading off public comment was Sheila Surrett. “Our city is a big trash dump,” she said. “Trash all over this city. Why are you-all protecting these people trashing the city; terrorizing people; throwing trash, needles, blankets and sleeping bags all over downtown and throughout the city? We need a solution, which you leaders refuse to come up with.”
Surrett continued, “This has been going on way before COVID. How many years have I been coming to you-all talking about how dirty it is? I know it’s at least for five years.” Showing photos of trash and camping equipment left in doorways of businesses downtown, she said, “This is unacceptable. This is left all day long. What’s going to happen when we have SOCON in town over the weekend, and the Billie Jean King tournament? Do you want them to see this junk all over the place?”