Asheville City Council

“We won’t be content shuffling the homeless from one side of town to the other.”

— presidential appointee Philip Mangano

No one disputed that ending local homelessness within the next decade is a good idea. But a list of 30 nominees to the project’s new steering committee did spark some debate at the Asheville City Council’s May 18 work session.

That ambitious goal — proposed by the Downtown Social Issues Task Force as part of the fallout from last year’s revamped panhandling ordinance — also carries the endorsement of a national effort headed by presidential appointee Philip Mangano.

“We need to stop the process of managing and begin the process of ending homelessness,” Mangano declared at an April press conference held in Asheville’s City Hall. “We won’t be content shuffling the homeless from one side of town to the other.”

Rather than continuing a system that simply doesn’t work, Mangano maintained, communities must begin reconsidering the social infrastructure that leaves people vulnerable to becoming homeless, such as prisons, foster homes and mental-health programs. Attention, he said, must be focused on the small percentage of the homeless population on whom the vast majority of the available public resources are expended. In Asheville’s case, the Downtown Social Issues Task Force reports, that amounts to about 19 homeless people who repeatedly cycle through the prison, hospital and shelter systems.

On March 23, City Council voted to create a steering committee that would draft a local plan. The Social Issues Task Force was charged with pulling together the steering committee (subject to formal approval by Council).

All but two of the 30 nominees represent local service providers involved in the issues surrounding homelessness, such as law enforcement, rescue missions, mental-health facilities, prisons and clergy. The remaining slots were reserved for private-business owners.

During the May 18 work session, however, Council member Holly Jones told her colleagues she’d like to see more appointees from the business community.

“For this to catch wind, it would be great to have some more corporate interests,” said Jones. Citing reports about other cities’ efforts, she argued that having business leaders on board could both bring creative new ideas to the table and help produce quicker results. In a later interview, Martha Are noted that no service providers are represented on Atlanta’s steering committee.

In a similar vein, Mayor Charles Worley — emphasizing that the effort would require nothing less than a “paradigm shift” — worried that some service providers “will be so entrenched that they cannot give a fair analysis in the face of restructuring.”

But Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan, the staff liaison to the Social Issues Task Force, was hesitant to make changes. “There’s hardly anybody here I’d want to throw out of the balloon,” she said, adding that, at 30 strong, the committee is already “unwieldy.”

But Jones stood firm, asking that three more downtown-business owners be added before Council’s May 25 formal session.

The city’s initiative is part of a snowballing effort by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, formed in response to a call by President George W. Bush to end chronic homelessness.

The directive is gaining momentum both in North Carolina and nationwide. The same week he visited Asheville, Mangano (who is USICH’s executive director) brought his message to Charlotte, Hendersonville, Raleigh and other cities across the state. The Interagency Council is also helping shepherd the $70 million Samaritan Initiative Act, designed to fund anti-homelessness measures, through Congress.

Misdirection?

Also unveiled at the work session was a planning document cobbled together by Council and city staff during a string of recent retreats, prompting one city leader to balk.

The Strategic Operating Plan, designed to help chart the city’s course over the next few years, lists concerns ranging from housing to economics, homelessness to drug abuse.

But while some Council members requested minor editorial changes in the draft plan, Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower insisted he would vote against adopting it at the upcoming formal session.

Coming on the heels of recent bickering and calls for unity, Mumpower’s move seemed to catch some of his colleagues off guard. And though both Jones and Council member Brownie Newman repeatedly asked Mumpower to explain his position, their requests went largely unsatisfied.

“This document is about bigger government and dances around services,” said Mumpower. “It’s just a philosophical disagreement, not a personal disagreement.”

Newman then pressed the vice mayor for details, arguing, “If there’s stuff in here people cannot live with, I think they should say it.”

But Mumpower refused to get specific, instead offering to meet with Council members one on one. He did, however, say that Council’s time would be better spent on “core services” such as the $1 million drug-interdiction initiative he’d proposed at a contentious budget workshop several weeks before. That effort was killed on a 4-3 vote.

And though the discussion remained civil, several colleagues urged Mumpower to put aside his misgivings in the name of moving forward.

“This document is never going to be perfect,” observed Council member Joe Dunn. “There are some things I disagree with, but I’d like to see us start coming together as a council.”

Mayor Worley also weighed in, saying: “This is a collective document put together by a group of people. When you get down to the specifics, we are going to have our differences.”

But Mumpower remained adamant.

“If I put my name on this, I’m endorsing this,” he explained. “I’m saying I agree with this, and there are things [in it] I disagree with.”

And Mumpower’s unwillingness to spell out his objections left Jones wondering what the vice mayor might have planned for the upcoming formal session.

“I don’t want to get blind-sided next Tuesday,” noted Jones.

In a later interview, Mumpower called the Strategic Operating Plan’s goals unrealistic.

“There is a lot of pretense and fantasy attached to this effort,” he said, arguing that it distracts Council’s attention from more important issues, such as his proposed local war on drugs. Mumpower added that he’s been sharing a retooled version of his drug plan with various Council members.

[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]

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