From handcuffs to helping hands

It was just another too-familiar headline in the daily paper: Honeywell announces that it’s laying off 180 workers from its Madison County plant. That means 180 families begin the new year wondering how they’ll make ends meet. Many of those castoff employees will find other jobs of some sort — but probably not at comparable wages.

And for families already scrambling to balance the budget, that sudden loss of income could mean bills unpaid, debt racked up — or, worst case, maybe even landing on the street.

That, of course, is only one way the local homeless population grows. And it is increasing, say representatives of agencies serving those folks.

“Certainly, [the homeless population] is growing. On any given night, we have over 500 homeless people in Asheville,” reports Martha Are, executive director of Hospitality House.

Happily, however, so is local citizens’ awareness of the problem. Two controversial recent actions by the Asheville City Council — outlawing panhandling, loitering and public urination/defecation, and questioning the legality of a Montford soup kitchen run by the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry — have raised the profile of the local homeless population and the challenges they face. And in the wake of those actions, City Council supporters and critics alike are now asking themselves, “What can we do to help?”

Who and how many?

Unquestionably, help is needed. Despite the city’s four traditional homeless shelters and close to two dozen programs assisting the homeless population, “There are times when we have a hundred-bed shortage,” Are reports.

One common misconception about the homeless, she explains, is that they’ve come here from somewhere else. In fact, the makeup of the local homeless population mirrors that of the overall population. As an example, Are pointed to the 19 homeless people whom local law enforcement and social-service agencies have acknowledged to be the primary target of City Council’s new panhandling ordinance. (According to the Asheville Police Department, these 19 people accounted for the bulk of the 232 citations issued under the city’s prior panhandling ordinance over a 20-month period.) Local social-service agencies, she notes, had records (such as prior addresses and places of birth) for 16 of the 19. “Seven were born here in Asheville, two others in Western North Carolina, and one was born in another part of North Carolina. The percentage that are native [is] roughly the same as the overall population of Asheville, when you compare it to the latest census information.”

As for the rest, Are reports that although every homeless person’s story is unique, there are some commonalities — starting with the simple fact that Asheville is a desirable place to live. “The same things that make Asheville attractive to entrepreneurs, tourists, artists and young professionals make it attractive to people whose lives might be fragile,” she maintains. “Other factors include Asheville being the largest town in the region. A large percentage of the homeless population have had previous interactions with either local, state or federal systems, be it the criminal-justice system, mental-health system, foster care, welfare or other such programs. … Asheville is the largest city closest to Craggy [prison], the VA Hospital, Broughton State Hospital — these are regional facilities, and often [homeless people will] go to the largest city closest to the facility that discharges them.”

And despite the undeniable challenges, Are believes the current situation also represents an opportunity to start addressing the problems in a more fundamental fashion. “We have a combination of frustration and motivation to start addressing the homeless issue in a proactive rather than reactive way. Traditionally, folks have looked to the homeless-services [agencies] to bring the crisis to an end, but we don’t create the problem of homelessness; we can’t control the number of people needing services. But when the community addresses these questions, we can start looking for solution-oriented approaches. There is a need for new, creative initiatives, but we have to engage the broader community and ask, ‘What are the community’s long-term solutions?'”

One such initiative, she notes, is a blue-ribbon commission on homelessness recently formed by City Council. “I’m very excited about it,” Are declares.

First steps

Both the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Asheville Downtown Association played significant roles in gaining passage of the new panhandling ordinance. The downtown merchants and urbanites who constitute much of the ADA’s membership argued that the panhandlers and loiterers were hurting downtown businesses and lowering the quality of life for tourists and residents alike. According to former ADA President Peter Alberice (who has sinced passed the gavel to Kim MacQueen), the organization fully supports the new measure and is glad to see it on the books.

But in the course of researching the issues surrounding local homelessness and panhandling, he continues, group members also learned a few things that shifted their perspective on the problem. In a meeting with Xpress, Alberice and other ADA members explained that they sought information from Hospitality House and other social-service agencies. And what they learned dispelled some preconceptions they held about the homeless.

One such lesson, noted Alberice, was that you can’t judge the entire homeless population by the actions of a few. In fact, he said, only a small percentage of that population engages in the problematic behaviors the organization wants to stop. As a result, said Alberice, the ADA wants to avoid approaching this as a rich-vs.-poor or us-vs.-them issue. “This is simply a community issue,” he asserts.

And, echoing Martha Are, Alberice said the ADA, too, now seeks to move beyond relying on government to address the symptoms. Instead, the group wants capitalize on the increased local awareness to push for community-based initiatives that will support the work of organizations serving this population. In other words, the ADA wants to strike while the iron is hot.

One way the group hopes to do that is through a newly created subcommittee on homelessness. Attorney Doug Tate of McGuire Wood & Bissette co-chairs the committee with Vincenzo’s restaurant owner Dwight Butner. The committee, said Tate, is spearheading an initiative to dedicate the revenue from selected downtown parking meters to local agencies that serve the homeless. Similar plans are already in place in several other cities, including Nashville.

Tate knows whereof he speaks. The attorney, who recently moved to the area from Raleigh, is well-versed in the challenges of dealing with this vexing issue. “Prior to coming to Asheville, I’d taken some time off from practicing law to do something less stressful,” he said in a recent interview. “So I took a job as the executive director of a homeless shelter in Raleigh. It was there that I learned the real definition of stress.” One of the biggest challenges, he noted, was raising awareness about his shelter’s work. “Nonprofits typically don’t have a budget for advertising or outreach, and if they do, it’s not very significant. They do a lot of good work and don’t get much support or recognition.”

The committee, said Tate, is still researching the parking-meter project. They’re also exploring the possibility of getting downtown offices and businesses to install drop boxes that, like the parking meters, would serve as a convenient way for people to give money to the homeless — knowing that it wouldn’t end up getting spent on drugs or alcohol. And while he acknowledges that this would be unlikely to raise a flood of money, even a trickle would help. More importantly, notes Tate, the meters and boxes will keep the issue in the spotlight.

That’s essential, says Tate, because it addresses the need for community-based solutions. “I don’t see government as the answer. Throwing these people in jail isn’t the answer; it isn’t going to make the problem go away. The community needs to take on a role here, especially after all these budget cuts. We need a hands-on approach. I heard somewhere that more and more families are joining the ranks of the homeless and that the average age of a homeless person is 9. That’s the type of statistic that should keep people up at night.”

Circling the wagons

Meanwhile, local businesses and ministries are also stepping up to the plate to tackle this pervasive problem.

Bennie’s Dog House, a new eatery on Haywood Road in West Asheville, is yet another new business contributing to the revitalization of one of Asheville’s most historic neighborhoods. Patrons of the tube-steak diner find a menu stacked with hot dogs done a dozen different ways. But Bennie’s also sells homemade soup, and when you step up to the counter, you’ll spy an unusual bit of signage: a sign advertising the free soup being served at another establishment several doors down. Owner Bennie Hall told Xpress that the free soup is being served at a new soup kitchen operated by a local ministry. “They came in here and asked if we would post the sign. I thought it was a good idea; we get a lot of people who are down on their luck who come in here for a handout. We can’t take care of them all, and we thought that this would be a good way to direct them somewhere where they can get something to eat.”

But talk to the proprietor of the new soup kitchen and he’s quick to correct you. “We’re not a soup kitchen; we’re a soup ministry,” intones the Rev. Phil Holland, the director of the WNC Dream Center (866 Haywood Road). Holland describes the facility (www.wncdreamcenter.org) as the headquarters of a local outreach ministry. “We’re not a church; we don’t have a congregation. What we do is provide administrative support for outreach ministers from different denominations. We want to bring all of the churches together through outreach ministry — and soup distribution is one of the many outreach programs we’re doing.” The WNC Dream Center is offering the free soup (as well as crackers and drinks) on Monday evenings from 6-8 p.m.

Holland concedes that he’s intentionally avoiding using the term “soup kitchen,” even though his Haywood Road location is zoned to permit such a facility. It’s a semantic dance that he considers an act of solidarity with a fellow faith-based organization. “We’re a nonprofit Christian organization; we see that the city is challenging ABCCM. It’s the church’s obligation — not just the government’s — to take care of these people. But the national trend as of late is to throw up a lot of bureaucracy and red tape in our way. Our religion commands us to take care of them. We want to obey the law, but we’re also under His law — a higher law. So we’re bringing a coalition approach to outreach ministry; there’s strength in unity.”

As for the soup ministry’s religious component, Holland said: “We’re looking out for the folks that don’t have anyone. We’ll talk to them and love them. We’ll reach out to anyone at any level, and there’s no strings attached. You don’t have to commit to anything or any denomination. And the community here in West Asheville has been very supportive — there’s lots of folks offering to volunteer.”

At that point, fellow outreach minister Mike McGuire, pastor of the Refuge Christian Center (701 Riverview Church Road), dropped in. “Look around you,” he said, gesturing broadly. “The number of people in need in this community is growing. If you see 10 homeless people, you can guarantee that there are 30 you don’t see. Plants are closing all the time; unemployment around here is on the rise. We’ve got to help these people.”

As strong as these ministers’ determination to follow their calling is their refusal to be cowed by bureaucratic stumbling blocks. “Not only are we going to take care of these people,” declares Holland, “but we’re going to fight to do so. We will take care of ‘the least of these.’ We’re going to fight for the rights of those doing outreach ministry. We want to be legally upright and correct, but we’re also assembling a legal team so that if one ministry is attacked, we’re gonna be prepared.”

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