Citizens Demanding Cleanup - TribPapers

Citizens Demanding Cleanup

One of Surrett's slides evokes memories of former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's observation that we're not doing anybody any favors to let them live this way. Photo submitted.

Asheville – This year, the City of Asheville is being more democratic in its budget process, and so a public hearing was held last Tuesday for early input. Folks spoke about equity and transportation, but the largest impression was made by several citizens wearing Asheville Coalition for Public Safety T-shirts.

Shelia Surrett began with a slide presentation. She showed the area where the city wanted to install a public restroom. The streetlights hadn’t been working for ten years. People in ragged clothes hunkered over piles of trash, as they do in photos soliciting foreign aid. She asked how members of the public were supposed to expect the city to manage the restrooms when they “can’t manage the area now.”

From there, she showed piles of trash and pathetic dwellings that were indistinguishable. The makeshift shafts were on the riverbanks and under bridges. Well-worn people passed the daylight hours with their tattered belongings in the middle of the sidewalk. A full-size mattress, left against a storefront, was pulled down for lounging. With all the funds the city just appropriated to convert its downtown gateways into aesthetic monuments, one particular gateway featured dirty laundry draped over a vine-covered chain-link fence.

Windows were broken and boarded. Graffiti displayed the latest anti-cop slogans. And Asheville made national headlines for its soaring crime rate.

Tom Tesser was next, and he was angry. He said members of the coalition had “begged, appealed, pleaded, cajoled, implored, and solicited” the city leadership and provided them with a lot of research and data. He didn’t know if the council was unable or unwilling to listen.

He said that before the George Floyd incident, Asheville had 250 police officers. Now, they have 173, with only 143 available for solo patrol. Tesser said to deter crime and give citizens a general feeling of safety, the city needs at least 200 officers available for solo patrol. What’s more, Police Chief David Zack said the city was on a trajectory that would take ten years to build the force back to its former levels.

Tesser said there was no denying the increasing crime in the city. He called attention to an article in the “Asheville Watchdog.” It reported people who work at downtown businesses saying downtown had “descended into squalor and lawlessness.” What stood out most to him was that employees at Bouchon now only leave at night with a gun or a knife.

He agreed with Surrett that the city’s priorities are misplaced when they will build an expensive restroom instead of re-funding the police. Tesser used up the rest of his allotted three minutes attempting to launch personal attacks as Mayor Esther Manheimer urged him to preserve a sense of civility.

Grace Ridgey told of being personally accosted and her boss having $700 and jewelry stolen from behind the counter of her business. The stolen merchandise was then offered for sale to another downtown vendor. She described the merchant community as friendly and looking out for each other. They used to enjoy keeping their doors open and being friendly with each other and passers-by. 

They are now intimidated by people coming into their stores wearing blankets. She used to live in Asheville, and she lived in New York City for 33 years, and she had never before felt so unsafe. She wasn’t going to pretend to buy into the popular narrative about every police department needing to be punished for the actions of a very few thugs elsewhere because they’re present in many other organizations as well. Even a bicycle patrol, she said, can provide a reassuring police presence. She closed, saying, “I don’t want to move.”

Honor Moor spoke about a perfect storm. Asheville was a magnet for crime committed by people experiencing vagrancy downtown; the city is choosing to refuse officers salaries and benefits on a par with neighboring municipalities; and the cost of living in Asheville is the highest or second-highest in the state. She asked members of council to please respond to a proposal submitted to them by the coalition.

Grace Barron had shared another perspective earlier in the meeting. She had spoken specifically against an item on the consent agenda: “authorizing the city manager to enter into contracts with Steri-Clean NC for biohazardous waste cleanup for up to $200,000 and WNC Landscaping, LLC for roadside litter and hotspot collection for up to $300,000.” Funds would come from an ARPA award earmarked for “implementing a litter and cleanliness program.”

Barron said the item should have been called “an encampment clearing contract.” She said she recognized the name of one of the contractors, as she had experienced the “horror” of encountering them at one encampment clearing. Barron said the $500,000 should be used “to help our neighbors.” For example, it could pay for trash collection or warming stations at encampments.

She next asked the existential question about what is to become of people who aren’t allowed to be anywhere. The “bulldozings” take from the dejected what few possessions they have, as well. She suggested members of council go to an encampment clearing on one of their boasted Ride-A-Longs. Then, they could look into the faces of the people and the pets and hear the dogs as they “scream” because they see the distress their owners are experiencing.

Afterward, Councilwoman Kim Roney explained that the funds were a one-time infusion from ARPA with a specific purpose. The city has neither identified revenue streams nor staffing to continue the program in future years. Manheimer added that these contracts were specifically for disposing of needles and other biohazards. The city has other contracts for cleanliness to address the wider problem.