There were eight homicides in Asheville last year; three of the victims were homeless people. Chris Allen Sewell died Dec. 2; shot outside the Hillcrest Apartments in Montford, he was later found dead against the fence separating the complex from Interstate 240. Michael Jones was beaten to death last July, and James Lovin was stabbed multiple times under an overpass in January 2007.
Two men—Robert Hoover and Justin Nicholson—have been arrested and charged in connection with Lovin’s death. No arrests have been made in the other cases.
Murder isn’t the only danger the homeless face. A winter that’s seen sudden, harsh drops in temperature poses its own perils. On Nov. 29, Donald Wayne Wilson, known as “Rodney,” froze to death at the intersection of Orchard and Charlotte streets.
But the Rev. Amy Cantrell, co-pastor of Zacchaeus House on South French Broad Avenue, aims to make sure these and other victims aren’t forgotten—and to shine a spotlight on the underlying problems. To that end, the ministry, which serves the poor and homeless, is erecting white crosses on the sites where Sewell, Wilson and nine others died last year. Streetside, Zacchaeus House’s monthly newsletter, has also drawn attention to the deaths and attacked the lack of affordable housing in Asheville.
“If folks don’t have adequate shelter, if they’re freezing and they’re asked to move along from what little they have—you can imagine what that does,” says Cantrell. “What we need to realize in this city is that shelter is a basic human right for all of us. When that is taken away from folks, they’re made vulnerable to the elements, to violence, to instability. What we’re seeing is gentrification in the housing market, making housing unaffordable to people” even if they have a modest income.
Robert Martinez has seen this firsthand. A former desk clerk at the Windsor Hotel downtown, he also lived there, as did Sewell. Martinez remembers him as “a quiet guy, very nice, very polite. He always kept his room clean. He stayed to himself and listened to his jazz records.”
But the building’s new owner, Asheville Hotel Inc., has been systematically evicting longtime residents—many of them day laborers—as part of a campaign to turn it into a “boutique hotel,” Martinez maintains (see “Stirring the Pot,” Oct. 24, 2007, Xpress). “They went around to some of them and offered them $250 in cash if they’d pack up and leave immediately,” Martinez reports. The former owners, he notes, “would let someone catch up on their rent if they were late by a few days, since so many people there worked in construction. Not anymore.”
In Sewell’s case, says Martinez, “It was all over $45—that was how much he was behind on his rent. He worked in construction and could have made the money up the next day, but they just threw him out. I believe if they hadn’t done that, he’d still be alive today.”
Kathi Hurtzfeld, the hotel’s current manager, declined to comment on the allegations.
With an estimated 700 homeless people in the city and just 258 shelter spaces, the problem is one that the Asheville Police Department confronts constantly. According to Lt. Wally Welch, the police break up homeless camps because they are often hotbeds of “exactly the type of criminal behavior”—such as assaults, robbery and drug use—that can result in murders like those of Lovin or Jones. Denizens of the camps are also vulnerable to attack, said Welch.
“I like a lot of [homeless people]; some of them are victims of circumstance,” says Welch. “But if the shelter’s full on a cold night, if the hospital and the jail won’t take them, we run out of options other than to ride around in the police cruiser.”
And as local housing costs rise, residents of the few remaining rooming houses may also fall victim to gentrification schemes, Martinez believes—adding that he, himself, is among the many city residents who are perilously close to finding themselves on the streets.
Whenever temperatures plummet or crime rises (as it did in Asheville last year), the problem of finding shelter grows even more acute, notes Cantrell.
“We have a huge, serious deficit of shelter space here in Asheville,” she reports. “You can see that we’re not even close to meeting the need.” Zacchaeus House, says Cantrell, has “put folks on the floor, any spot we can. A lot of places do that, but we’re still a long way from [addressing the problem].”
To call attention to both the lack of shelter and the resulting deaths, Zacchaeus House has now launched a campaign to put up crosses commemorating the victims, beginning with the 11 homeless people who died in 2007 (see box, “Rest in Peace”).
As recently as 2006, APD officials said they offered homeless people shelter in the police station on particularly cold nights, but that practice has now largely stopped, says Welch, because the facility’s current configuration makes that impractical. And if the shelters are full, the police often have difficulty finding places for folks with nowhere to go.
“We take them to the hospital if they have a medical condition, but some of them are frequent users of the hospital, so they’re turned away there,” he explains. “If they’ve committed a crime or violated probation, we take them to the jail.” But even jail officials can turn away homeless people they believe are too intoxicated or would cause trouble.
To help alleviate the problem, Buncombe County opened a 58-bed “wet shelter” on Jan. 30 for those who are too intoxicated to be taken in by the jail.
“Some police officers have a lot of heart,” notes Cantrell, but others “harass folks who are homeless [and] slash tents. Many folks who are homeless in this city are considered illegal, because it’s considered trespassing if you’re caught sleeping on public property. I know many, many, many people who have had their tents slashed or their stuff looted.”
Welch, however, denies that the APD slashes tents, saying, “We don’t destroy personal property.” And in general, he adds, “Most of the time, if we encounter a homeless person on the streets and no law is being broken, we let them go about their business.” But the state Department of Transporation, says Welch, will clear out camps on a right of way—including bulldozing them.
DOT District Engineer McCray Coates says his agency doesn’t bulldoze camps. It will dismantle them, however, “usually when we get complaints about trash in the area or interference with the roadway. The crews will come in and take it apart by hand.”
To Cantrell, though, the real problem is society’s—and individuals’—unwillingness to share resources equally. “More people need to open their doors, but that’s just a Band-Aid,” she asserts. “Until we’re willing to close the gap of poverty and everyone has enough, I don’t think we’ll solve the homelessness problem.”
Meanwhile, Martinez says he’s now sharing a house with two other former Windsor residents, working part-time as a waiter to make ends meet.
“Right now, we’re all struggling just so we can pay rent. That could turn into another situation entirely. I work in food service; they work in construction. The winter months have been very skimpy. We’re this close to being homeless again.”