A small group of protesters sat in front of Pack Memorial Library today to call for the city of Asheville to put back two park benches it removed after receiving complaints about criminal behavior in the area.
Protest organizer Douglas Ewen, who volunteers at the AHOPE shelter, sat with Jonathan Scott, a public-relations worker, held up signs with slogans like “Bring Back Our Benches” and “Sitting is Not a Crime.” While they sat, they were joined briefly by other supporters, including homeless and formerly homeless people.
“It’s not just about the removal of the benches; we’re protesting the discrimination against homeless people that don’t have the clout to represent themselves,” Ewen said. “The benches were used by everyone. I would sit here because it’s a nice, sunny spot.”
Ewen said a better solution would have been for the Asheville Police Department to deal directly with crime in the area.
“They need solve that problem: Arrest the drug dealers, fight the crime — homelessness isn’t a crime,” he said. “Basically the solution to the homeless problem right now is ‘out of sight out, of mind,’ take away the benches, the homeless don’t show up, the tourists don’t get disturbed.”
Scott said he hoped to draw attention to a “pattern of discrimination” that he said included both the removal of the benches and driving breakfasts for the homeless out of Pritchard Park.
“They should enforce the laws — if someone’s breaking it, it should be enforced, but to take away the benches that were used by everyone isn’t solving the problem, it’s just displacing it,” Scott told Xpress. “The city needs to find real solutions to the problem of homelessness, not just continue to focus on pushing them out.”
Roger Littrell used to be homeless but now works at the Asheville Renaissance Hotel (“I’ve got food in the fridge now,” he said with a chuckle) and stopped by on his way home to support the protest.
“I knew quite a few people that sat on these benches,” he said. “This is a blind move by the city. They’re a convenience to the tourists that sit down. I’ve sat on the benches down here a lot, just came here, sat down, took a rest, talked to people sitting there. They can say it’s about using drugs, but not everyone that sat here was using drugs. There’s people all over Asheville using drugs, all over the world. They’re not all homeless.”
The city should “really pull together and find a way to get them housing. AHOPE’s done more to get homeless people into homes than anyone else in this city. Even a place where they could pitch their tent safely would be a start.”
About the fights, Littrell said “some communication with the homeless would help. Find out where they really need to go. When you’re in that situation, there’s some fighting. There has to be. I’ve seen people run after the last sandwich. They need to support our missions and the people helping the homeless.”
Adrienne Inez joined Ewen and Scott, sitting and holding a sign.
“Yes, sitting is not a crime,” she told Xpress. “Maybe the city should have consulted or made it known instead of just doing this. I enjoyed these benches.”
The protest didn’t block the sidewalk, and people periodically walked past the group.
Scott later said that even if people weren’t attending the protest, he believed “we’ve raised awareness of [the removal of the benches]” and that more people were becoming “aware of it through the media.”
— David Forbes, staff writer