A pair of benches in front of Pack Memorial Library in downtown Asheville has been removed after complaints by surrounding business and condominium owners of criminal behavior there. Meanwhile, Asheville’s chief of police says there may be some truth to the rumor that someone is bussing homeless people to Asheville.
According to business owners on Haywood Street, the library benches had become a gathering place for people generally considered to be homeless, but they stress that the issue is really more about crime.
“This is not about homelessness, it is about behavior,” says Bloomin’ Art owner Beth Stickle, part of an alliance that petitioned the city to increase enforcement efforts in that part of the city. “And the behavior had become unacceptable.”
Neighbors claim that they have witnessed incidents ranging from drinking to fights to drug dealing there.
The location is not only high-profile, being in the heart of a major retail section of downtown and a main library branch, but it is also a heavily used pedestrian corridor. The last straw, many locals agree, was when a passerby was attacked after trying to intervene with a person standing in the middle of the street. The person ended up in the hospital with a crushed windpipe.
That the scene is reminiscent of incidents at Pritchard Park is not coincidental, says Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan. After the department placed a warden at the park, it is believed that some of the main troublemakers there moved on to other places, including the library benches.
In response to complaints, the APD stepped up enforcement in front of the library, leading to several arrests at the end of October.
“They have been exemplary in their response to our concerns,” Stickle says. “It has made a huge difference.” But despite that progress, Hogan wound up recommending to the city manager’s office that the benches, which sat next to a bus stop, be removed. “I said we may just want to experiment with them and take them up temporarily,” Hogan said.
Meanwhile, Hogan says he is compiling information on some of the people on Asheville’s streets and investigating the possibility that some problem homeless people are being dropped off in Asheville from other communities.
One thing is for certain, he says: Several of those arrested in the operation said they hailed from other cities, and that’s enough to take a fresh look at the cause and realities of Asheville’s homeless population, the police chief added.
The notion that other cities bus homeless people to Asheville has long been considered a local urban legend, but Hogan says some information he has received seems to transcend the typical anecdotes and rumors.
“The people that are downtown, are they native to Asheville? Are they passing through? Where do they come from?” he asks.