The battle over how the city of Asheville is managing its population of homeless residents intensified during the Jan. 11 meeting of Asheville City Council when members heard new data indicating that encampments pose a danger for the people living in them.
The hourlong discussion, led by the city’s homeless services lead Emily Ball and Asheville Police Department Capt. Mike Lamb, centered on initiatives aimed at providing shelter to Asheville’s homeless residents and evaluating the city’s stated policy of clearing encampments. Lamb said the city has seen a “drastic increase” in illegal camping since COVID shelter-in-place measures were first announced in spring 2020.
“We used to have smaller encampments, which has been common for several years in the city of Asheville, but we have not seen the size of the encampments that we’ve seen over the last two years,” Lamb said. “These larger encampments have created health and safety issues for people both in the camps as well as the surrounding areas.”
During a presentation, Lamb cited APD data showing that 10% of overall crime in Asheville from Jan. 1, 2020, to Jan. 9, 2022 — including 14% of violent crime and 8.5% of property crime — occurred within 500 feet of an encampment. Within 1,000 feet, those numbers increase to 22% of overall crime, 25% of violent crime and 20% of property crime within the city. Lamb also noted that locations in and around encampments have been the sites of two homicides, 105 overdoses, 151 aggravated assaults and 25 rapes, among other crimes and safety issues over the last two years.
Council member Sandra Kilgore called the statistics “staggering” and voiced concern about the abundance of needles and other health risks to children and other residents living or working near the encampments, while Council member Sage Turner said that the data was “very shocking and concerning.” Turner added that discussions about homelessness and public health and safety should include the people living within the encampments, as well as the community at-large.
“There’s a lot happening in those encampments and I don’t, for one, feel comfortable with allowing them to continue,” Turner said. “It feels very hard to say that, because I also don’t believe that folks should be left without shelter. I believe that shelter is a human right.”
Council member Kim Roney said the data was “unsurprising” given homeless residents’ lack of resources and called the displacement of those living in encampments a public health problem.
City Manager Debra Campbell said either option — to allow the encampments or to remove them — creates a public health “dichotomy” that could create health and safety risks to the people living within the camps.
“Oftentimes campers are both victims and perpetrators. And unfortunately there is a tremendous amount of … violent crime. This isn’t petty theft. This is violent crime,” Campbell said, noting, “If we allow the camps to occur, there’s a public health risk.”
APD presents its updated policy for camp removal
Lamb said during the presentation that the city has several specific ordinances that restrict camping on public property, as well as trespassing and obstruction of sidewalks. He noted that the city’s long-standing approach to camp removal includes a seven-day notice to campers to vacate public property unless there is an immediate health or safety risk, such as evidence of violent crime or fire hazards.
Lamb said the approach has worked for the last several years when people were camping in small groups, but recently the general weeklong notice to vacate properties has resulted in encampments growing larger and potentially creating health and safety risks to those staying within them.
As a result, Lamb said that the APD has updated its procedures for addressing camps that violate current city ordinances, reducing the seven-day notice instructing campers to leave within 48 hours, and within 24 hours if a health or safety risk has been identified within the encampment.
“We think the goal ought to be that they be sheltered,” said Campbell. “And we are doing and coordinating with every entity that we can to get people shelter first and foremost and to minimize the risk, particularly as the camp grows. And the way that we mitigate the camp from growing is that we say, ‘You have to move or relocate within a short amount of time,’ because once we allow seven to eight days, unfortunately the camp becomes so large that it’s a risk, not only to the campers, but to the surrounding area, as well as to [city] staff.”
During public comment, several members of the public pushed back against the city’s policy of removing camps, including Grace Martinez who asked that the city follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on encampments, which recommend allowing people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are. Martinez also called for the city to immediately implement “sanctuary camping” at one of the city’s public parks that have sanitation facilities.
“I legitimately don’t understand why we are [removing encampments] when we clearly know it isn’t working. We know that folks lack other options, and that makes clearing of encampments not only inhumane but unsustainable, ineffective and creates more long-term problems. … That is no solution at all,” Martinez said. “Where do you want them to go?”
Council member Roney also criticized the removal of encampments, as well as Council’s decision not to fund a low-barrier shelter after receiving community pushback.
“In the absence of an emergency shelter, which was a choice that we made — we’ve spent $3.5 million and yet lack a community asset to show for it — we now are going to chase these folks around town,” Roney said. “This [issue] is not going to go away by displacing people.”
A growing issue?
“One of the things I hear from folks is that people come from outside of our region to Asheville because we offer services, because we are maybe a little bit more friendly, etc,” said Council member Gwen Wisler. “One, is that true? And two, what do you think about that? It would seem that our priorities should be ‘our neighbors first.’”
Lamb said that he recently encountered two homeless people who traveled to Asheville from the surrounding area to access city services, while Ball, the city’s homelessness lead, explained that Asheville’s homeless population was “a mixed bag” of locals and people from other areas in the region.
“I think our community is a hub for people for a variety of reasons. Folks across the region are coming to Asheville to get a number of different needs met,” said Ball. “I do certainly think that we do sometimes have folks, as Capt. Lamb mentioned, who are coming to our community while homeless specifically seeking services. But based on our data, we primarily have folks who are originally from here or who became homeless here.”
Ball added that as many as 76% of the residents of the Ramada Inn, which currently houses roughly 80 homeless residents, are from Buncombe County. She also noted that the city has funded several initiatives aimed at getting people off of the streets, including committing $3.5 million in funding to create 285 units of permanent supportive housing through partnerships with Homeward Bound and Step Up.
Council member Turner noted that while the investments are a step in the right direction to address the issue, even more funding and resources may not sufficiently address the growing need.
“I think we have to have the really hard conversation about what is our capacity. What is our capacity to help those in our community? What is our capacity to take community members from other communities? What is our financial capacity? What is our social capacity?” Turner asked. “What are we going to do if we [meet] all of the short-term needs, all of the intermediary housing needs, all of the high access shelters, and we still have a problem that we can’t contain?”
Residents demand charges be dropped against journalists
Several members of the public also called for charges to be dropped against local journalists Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, two writers for the news website Asheville Blade, who were arrested by the Asheville Police Department while covering the Dec. 25 removal of the homeless camp and art installation at Aston Park. The arrests also caught the attention of the international nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, which posted a message of support for the journalists on its Twitter account.
APD has not released a public statement on the arrests. Capt. Lamb noted during his presentation that most people his department encounters at camps are cooperative and move within the requested time frame, but that clashes with some members of the public who protest camp removals have led to arrests.
“In most cases we do not issue any enforcement action against these campers, but occasionally, we do have activists — anarchists — who refuse to leave during camp cleanup or tent removal,” he said.
Bliss, who spoke during the meeting, said she and Coit had identified themselves as journalists repeatedly before being arrested. Bliss noted that the APD had confiscated her phone during the arrest.
“Let us remind you,” Bliss said, “whether Council or the city manager, or anyone else in city government, likes our coverage is irrelevant. In fact, if you don’t, it’s a good sign we’re doing our jobs.”