“Imagine having everything you own crammed into a backpack that you have to carry around,” Asheville resident and activist Victoria Estes challenged members of Asheville City Council on April 13. “Imagine not being able to come home after work and shower, wash your clothes and climb into a warm bed. Imagine the state of your mental health, knowing that you have no financial security and no one to help you.
“That is what houseless folks in Asheville experience every day,” Estes continued, going on to call the city’s attitude toward individuals living on the streets and in parks “a war on poverty.” Her critical comments, echoed by seven other callers to Council’s regular meeting, come as the city prepares to oust people without housing from several encampments on city property.
Asheville has issued removal orders for camps at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Aston Park, along Cherry and Hill streets and at Riverbend Park near the Walmart Supercenter on Bleachery Boulevard in East Asheville. In March, the city announced plans to remove an encampment along the French Broad River to clear the area for greenway construction.
The city also made headlines after a camp on Lexington Avenue under Interstate 240 was removed by the N.C. Department of Transportation on a February day with sustained temperatures below freezing. City Manager Debra Campbell addressed the incident in a Feb. 9 presentation to Council, in which she reiterated that Asheville would continue to follow the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance to not remove any homeless camps on city property unless there was an imminent safety concern.
City leadership has received reports of violence among individuals living in the camps and heard concerns from residents in the surrounding neighborhoods that necessitate the camps’ removal, Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball told Council. Unhoused residents were given between seven and 30 days’ notice to vacate before the camps’ removal, she said.
Kim Roney, the only member to speak on the issue, asked if Campbell or Ball knew how many people had received temporary housing. Mayor Esther Manheimer responded, saying that local shelters like Homeward Bound currently have space but “folks are choosing not to take the shelter option.”
Roney continued her questioning, asking where the city is advising unhoused residents to go after an eviction. Staffers are “providing information” for downtown shelters, Ball said; the city is also looking into low-barrier shelters to fill the “missing link of the chain,” Campbell added. Low-barrier shelters don’t place conditions on those wishing to enter, like providing a valid form of identification or passing a breathalyzer test to determine sobriety.
Short-term solutions include looking at partnerships with Buncombe County, churches and area nonprofits to open “Code Purple” shelters nightly, not just when temperatures dip below freezing, Ball said. Long-range goals include “providing a path to stable housing,” though Ball did not elaborate on what that might look like.
At Council’s annual retreat and at an April 13 budget work session, members expressed their intention to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to address the homelessness crisis. No formal plans or funding amounts have been shared.
Asheville has a reputation of being a progressive, welcoming and inclusive place, Roney said, but the city’s latest actions are an embarrassment.
“We also have such visible disparities because we have abundant resources, and we’re in Appalachia, a place with a rich history of taking care of each other in the really rough times and sharing what we have,” she said. “We need more people, we need more solutions and we need more resources.”
Other callers echoed Roney’s plea, calling Asheville’s “heartbreaking” and “completely unacceptable” removal actions nothing short of a “human rights violation.”
“It’s so blatantly obvious that our community is being sidelined so that tourists can continue to be welcomed into town,” said Paul Schulman of West Asheville. “What’s being inflicted on our neighbors is completely unacceptable.”