Members of the Be Loved Community, formerly homeless residents of Asheville and several city council members gathered outside of City Hall prior to City Council’s weekly meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8, to listen to firsthand accounts of homelessness, voice support for the city’s affordable housing initiatives and encourage members of the Asheville community to stand together in combating housing insecurity.
Rev. Amy Cantrell, the event’s organizer, led the rally, calling upon individuals in attendance to share their feelings on the importance of providing affordable housing within the city. “The average life expectancy of a homeless individual is 50 years,” said Cantrell, as opposed to the national average of 78 years.
Members of Be Loved held signs advocating for more affordable housing and voiced their support for Asheville’s plans to alleviate homelessness in the area. Several members of the rally recreated a nativity scene to drive home their point during this holiday season. “Let us not forget that on the evening Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were homeless and seeking shelter,” said Cantrell of the demonstration.
One formerly homeless woman spoke of how easy it is for the average individual to fall into the cycle of homelessness. “One day you’re making money. Then something happens and the next thing you know, you’re out on the street.” She added that residents couldn’t rely on nonprofits like Homeward Bound to solve the problems faced by rising numbers of homeless individuals. “[Nonprofits] are overwhelmed by the numbers of people they serve. Their resources are already stretched.”
City Councilman Gordon Smith then offered his thoughts on the current housing situation, emphasizing that “this is a matter of life or death for people.” Smith cited the Asheville Housing Needs Assessment, which predicts that over 5,000 housing units would be needed to house the homeless population in Asheville over the next five years, noting that current projections estimate that the city can only provide half the necessary units in that time frame.
“The need is too great for the city to handle on its own,” he said, despite Asheville being better equipped than many other cities across the country to handle housing insecurity.
Newly appointed vice-mayor Gwen Wisler echoed this sentiment in her remarks, saying that the issue of affordable housing and homelessness can’t be solved 100 percent by government. “There needs to be a mandate about this,” she added. “It’s everyone’s problem, from City Council to the hoteliers to citizens to nonprofits. We all have to contribute to the solution.”
Another formerly homeless man named James shared his personal experiences of sleeping out on the streets shortly afterwards. “You don’t want to go to sleep for fear of what might happen,” he said. “You live on the shelter’s schedules: if you miss a mealtime, then you’re eating out of a dumpster.”
Others spoke of the fear of police harassment, violence or even rape at the hands of miscreants. “It’s a sense of desperation,” said one woman.
Cantrell closed the rally by asking for a moment of silence to remember those who had died while living on the streets in the past year. “Let us stand hushed in shame for the people who don’t have a place to call home,” she said. “We remember those now sleeping in peace who died on the streets. Let us not go in peace until all of us have a place to call our own.”
Cantrell then led those gathered in a solemn rendition of “Silent Night,” before offering a few last words: “This is the real gift of Christmas, not presents or gifts. It’s helping those who are really in need. We can’t end homelessness for everyone, but we can support them and walk with the people who live this everyday.”