Asheville wants to end homelessness, right? That’s a noble cause, and I support the good intentions behind this effort. But if Asheville is ever going to achieve this lofty goal, we need to be honest about a few things first.
1) There’s a segment of Asheville’s homeless population that chooses it as a “lifestyle.”
Take 30 minutes to talk to people hanging around Prichard Park or Pack Square and you’ll encounter stories ranging from the heroic to the heartbreaking, from survival to surrender. There is indeed a segment of our community that has fallen through the cracks, and as a civilized society, we must address their suffering. The challenge, however, is to recognize that a significant portion of Asheville’s street population consists of people who are completely employable apart from their attitudes of anarchy and defiance toward “the man” (which you and I might call the American dream). Should such people be able to lie back in society’s safety net as if it were their own personal hammock?
2) No government that supports individual liberty—which goes hand in hand with personal accountability—can ever legislate an end to people’s bad decisions or hard luck.
From a policy standpoint, I believe the best thing the city can do is get out of its residents’ way. City Council can do this by reducing burdensome regulations and red tape that make it harder for community groups to help people in need. They can do it by reducing the tax burden on individuals and businesses (so they have more money to devote to helping their neighbors), and by forcefully advocating against state-government micromanagement and incompetence—which brings me to my main point.
3) Asheville’s residents and politicians have got to be much more aggressive with their state government.
The cold, hard fact of it is that if you ever truly want to see Asheville reach its potential and be empowered to make decisions that fit this city, you’ve got to get Raleigh off her back.
How does this relate to homelessness?
A few years back, the General Assembly and Gov. Mike Easley launched a legal crusade to reform North Carolina’s mental-health system. Despite screams from some of us who’ve worked in the behavioral sciences, warning of the debacle that lay ahead, and despite the passionate pleas of those who would be negatively impacted, know-it-all do-gooders in Raleigh passed these ill-researched reforms anyway. What has followed is a disintegration of epic proportions.
According to state auditors’ best guess, taxpayers have seen almost half a billion dollars wasted. And an investigation by The News & Observer of Raleigh into the quality of care at state mental-health hospitals since the reforms found that more than 80 patients have died under suspicious circumstances related to inadequate care.
But it doesn’t stop there. The state fired a highly rated longtime employee who’d released documents to the N&O, questioning her integrity in the press and publicly trying to destroy her reputation. In addition, Gov. Easley’s administration has admitted to destroying numerous public documents in relation to this emerging scandal. Since that admission, the head of the state Department of Transportation has sent out a memo to all 9,500 of its employees telling them it’s OK for them to go ahead and destroy public records of DOT communications as well. (Notice a trend developing here?)
But with so much waste and inefficiency in the delivery of care, so much apparent corruption and so much death, was there any chance that word wouldn’t get out on the street?
The truth is, North Carolina’s state government has ruined the mental-health system—and, in the process, has caused an increase in crime, in the prison population and in homelessness. Thanks to Raleigh, otherwise self-reliant people who were capable of a reasonably happy life are struggling to live week to week because they can’t get their medications refilled or the regular outpatient treatment they so desperately need. And the very politicians who caused all this are now engaged in an effort to cover it up by destroying documents and blaming local care providers.
Asheville has a statewide reputation as a very caring and compassionate city with unmatched services and safety nets for people who fall through the cracks. We ought to be proud of that. Now, however, people who’ve been shoved through the cracks and stomped on by the state are finding their way to the food lines, shelters and streets of Asheville.
So to Asheville City Council members who want to help end local homelessness, I say: Take a stand against a state government that continually screws up and expects us to clean up their mess. You have a strong and forceful public who will back you up.
[Matt Mittan hosts Take A Stand! on WWNC-AM, Monday through Friday from 3-6 p.m. The show’s Web site is www.MattCave.us.]