The cost of a free meal in Asheville

Adam Ripley
Meals on wheels: Adam Ripley at Aston Park, where he has relocated his free food program. photo by Rebecca Bowe

Montreat resident Adam Ripley never figured that giving away hot meals would land him in hot water.

But in early May, the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department gave him the boot, telling him his Pritchard Park volunteer breakfast ministry had grown big enough to threaten public safety. As many as 300 homeless people were flocking to the park on Saturday mornings, when Ripley — a 21-year-old Bible-and-religion major at Montreat College who calls his group “Least of These Ministries” — would dish out all-you-can-eat portions of eggs, pancakes, sausage and bacon free of charge.

The meals had drawn the ire of some downtown business owners, who complained that the crowds of mostly homeless people made the area around the park less appealing to tourists and other potential customers.

After his eviction, Ripley spent hours negotiating with city staff, who eventually offered Aston Park as an alternate venue for his charitable work. But that didn’t settle the matter, as Ripley and his band of hungry brothers found themselves smack in the middle of another crossfire — the city’s war on drugs and crime at the latter site.

Soon, Ripley was approached by Aston Park neighbors alarmed about attracting more homeless people to an area that already has a troubled reputation. The city has taken several steps to clear the park of crime and renovate the facilities there. In collaboration with the West End/Clingman Avenue Neighborhood Association and the tennis community (the Aston Park Tennis Center is located there), Parks & Rec has worked to reshape the park’s image and make it more accessible to neighbors. In a twin effort, Parks & Rec has partnered with the Asheville Police Department to establish evening patrols by off-duty officers. Some neighbors fear that the homeless feedings could hamper those efforts.

Ministry or menace?: This was a common Saturday-morning scene in Pritchard Park, where Least of These Ministries distributed free breakfast to the homeless until the city prohibited the meals at that location. photo by Andrew May

Still, Ripley maintains that his servings, which go until 2 p.m. at the latest, don’t constitute a threat and that the real issue is one of discrimination against the down-and-out. “The homeless really don’t deserve what the government and the community gives them,” Ripley told Xpress. “They’re just trying to push them out of sight and ignore them.”

The controversy boiled over at the May 23 City Council meeting (see “Feeding the Fire,” May 31 Xpress). Ripley’s supporters accused the city of kowtowing to business interests at the expense of fundamental human needs; some of his opponents charged that the homeless are a menace to the downtown area.

Sharing the hot seat with Ripley is Mayor Terry Bellamy, who has taken increasingly vocal stands on the question of how and where to feed those who can’t afford to feed themselves. In the aftermath of the contentious Council session, Bellamy staked out her position in detail in an e-mail she wrote in reply to one of Ripley’s allies. In that message, the mayor explains that she does “not support the use of Aston Park for the feeding” because of neighborhood efforts to “mitigate the impact the homeless [have] had on Aston Park.”

The e-mail exchange is reproduced below. The first one is from the Rev. Chrystal Cook of Zacchaeus House Church, who was present at the meeting; the second is from Bellamy. Both e-mails are presented essentially as written, with minimal editing for clarity and bracketed notes to provide needed context.


From: Chrystal Cook
Sent: Wed May 24 08:31:05 2006
Subject: Clarifications regarding last night’s council meeting

Dear Mayor Bellamy, City Council Members, and Mr. [Irby] Brinson [director of Parks and Recreation],

Thank you for your time and attention to issues critical to this city in last night’s council meeting.

As an individual and as a representative of Zacchaeus House Church, however, I must make a few corrections.

As Christian clergy, my ethics have been falsely characterized. First, our group was accused of sending name-calling emails. As I said to Mayor Bellamy after the meeting, our group does not use such tactics: we are a respectful, professional, Christian organization with a stated practice of non-violence both in action and language, after the manner of Dr. King. We were responsible for five email letters sent to you, from two ministers, one banker, one Quaker, and one guidance counselor at an Asheville City School. The names attached to those emails are Chrystal Cook, Amy Cantrell, Dee Dee Allen, Amy Erwin, and Beth Kaiser, and I guarantee that none of those folks said anything disrespectful, especially not name-calling.

On the other hand, when some downtown residents and business owners spoke out, they were allowed, without censure, to refer to my homeless sisters and brothers as “bums, vagrants, and aliens.” If you are sensitive to name-calling, why didn’t someone with the power of a microphone censure those statements? I was deeply hurt by those comments, and I cannot imagine how painful that was for the human beings sitting in the room designated as less than equal in person and rights. As for Adam Ripley, I cannot know what exchanges have happened between Adam and city staff. I must insist, however, that he is not the cause of division in our city—his breakfast merely brought to our attention the division that was already there, the disdain and distaste of the privileged for the poor downtown. If you want a unified city, perhaps encouraging the privileged to embrace a kinder, gentler attitude toward the poor would bring us all a step closer.

As I have previously stated, I remain deeply concerned and saddened about the direction this city is taking, a direction of exclusion. Atlanta tried this in the 1950’s with a downtown zone in which African Americans were not allowed; today they define the same zone as off-limits for the homeless, the only group left in America that it seems okay to despise. Please don’t allow our city to “progress” further in this direction. City Council has the power to make our city a place of welcome for all. Will you consider what that means for all of God’s children? Thank you for your time,

S. Chrystal Cook
Adjunct Instructor, HUM/FA Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College


From: Terry M Bellamy
Sent: Friday, May 26, 2006 4:50 PM [and copied to City Council, Irby Brinson, Ripley and Cook’s colleague at Zacchaeus House, the Rev. Amy Cantrell]
Subject: Moving Forward

(This is a response to your email and comments in the restroom [where Cook and Cantrell continued their informal discussion with the mayor].)

I understand that we have differing positions on these issues. You are looking from one perspective; however, as Mayor I must look at the issues in totality. It is important for me to represent the entire community, including the homeless.

I cannot overlook the fact that tourism is a one billion dollar industry (per chamber of commerce) for Buncombe County and downtown is a drawing card for visitors. Downtown business owners’ depend on business from tourist and local residents.

Our downtown landowners pay more property taxes than the Asheville Mall. Cumulatively they pay over 2.5 million dollars in property tax to the city of Asheville and County of Buncombe. The downtown property owners have raised legitimate concerns about the homeless population in downtown Asheville. [Their] concerns cannot be ignored. It is not my desire to overlook [either] their concerns [or] the concerns of the homeless. However, I do not think it is unreasonable to strike a compromise on the feeding of the homeless. The options I support are

1.) Mr. Ripley and his group working with existing service providers and using their facilities (where people are already receiving services);

2.) Mr. Ripley can collaborate with providers who are already serving in the parking lot of Department of Social Services;

3.) or Mr. Ripley can use the facilities at the Senior Opportunity Center [36 Grove St.]

I do not support the use of Pritchard Park because it unsafe to feed that large number of people on an ongoing basis, especially if you are expanding the service to not just breakfast – but, also lunch as the group did this past Saturday. Furthermore, in the spirit of full disclosure, I do not support the use of Aston Park for the feeding. During the last year, residents from both the South French Broad and West End/Clingman Avenue neighborhoods worked diligently to mitigate the impact the homeless [have] had on Aston Park.

The number of calls for Police/Sheriff services to the park was substantial in the past. It was not uncommon to find needles, crack pipes and other unwanted items in the park. It was such a huge problem the Housing Authority placed a fence up between its property and the park. Additionally, they removed stairs on their property that were being used by individuals throughout the day and night.

The homeless had gotten as bold as to tell parents, in the presence of their children, they were not moving and told the parents to go elsewhere. Occasionally there were some who would move when a request was made, but many had become empowered to remain with little regard for the individuals and groups who had reserved the park through proper procedures.

The problem with the homeless population did not and does not stay in the park; it bled and bleeds over into the neighborhoods. Recently, Quality Forward, Western Carolina Rescue Ministries along with residents of the WECAN neighborhood (and two city council members) participated in a clean-up in the forest adjacent to Aston Park. During the clean-up at least three camp sites were removed from the forest. These camps were located between residential neighborhoods with small children residing in the homes.

Today, the City of Asheville runs the park and the residents in the surrounding neighborhoods use the park. Children and parents are able to utilize the park with limited interruption. The city has partnered with the private sector to make a big investment in the entire park complex.

This is a snapshot of Aston Park. I could go on about specific cases of prostitution and drug dealing in the park. Needless to say, a lot of hours and resources have gone into cleaning up the park and I do not want to see it go backwards.

A great deal has been said about Martin Luther King, Jr. and what he believed. As a descendant of slaves, my forefathers and foremothers worked for equality. They worked to be able to go through the front door of any establishment to purchase the goods and services that they wanted – not for those items to [be] given to them. In speaking with individuals who marched in rallies for equality they did it so the playing fields would be leveled for blacks and others, not for playing fields [to] become a place to aggressively pan handle. In Martin Luther King’s Drum Major speech he talked about street sweeping as a profession, and stated that even street sweepers should sweep as Michelangelo painted the [Sistine] Chapel. I grew up listening, reading and studying Dr. King. I know that he died for equality. However, he wanted people to realize that all people are equal and emphasized that all people can achieve when barriers are removed. I sincerely believe that he wanted people to work and receive proper pay for their work. That people could live in any neighborhood their money could afford.

I do not believe that Dr. King would have wanted city council to repeal ordinances that [do not] allow people to aggressively pan handle, defecate and urinate in the parks (laws which I was asked to support repealing Tuesday night, while I was in the restroom). What I strongly believe he would want people to work for is to

1.) get public restrooms downtown

2.) affordable housing for people

3.) mental health services for individuals

4.) shelter for the homeless

5.) jobs for the unemployed and

6.) other items that improve the lives of people and help people to get out of poverty. And these are things I am working for as Mayor of the city and as a member of this community.

I want to clearly acknowledge that poverty exists in Asheville, North Carolina. Furthermore, I clearly acknowledge that our mental health system has failed a great deal of people. A step further, due to the loss of good paying jobs people have lost their once stable income. With all that said, I am working with homeless service providers, city council, city staff, state legislators, and others in [the] community to come up with positive solutions for issues.

It is my goal to work with the following people to continue to build on the work that has already been established for the homeless population. [NOTE: Bellamy lists 18 local-government offices and nonprofits that help the homeless.]

As far as the names that the homeless population was called, I was also disappointed in two speakers’ choice of vocabulary. In the future, I will inform individuals what is acceptable language in the council’s chamber.

Sincerely,
Mayor Bellamy


At this writing, city officials have given Ripley permission to continue distributing free breakfasts at Aston Park every Saturday. And if a new campaign to remove him from the park emerges, he says he’ll stand his ground — even if it means resorting to civil disobedience.

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One thought on “The cost of a free meal in Asheville

  1. Deja Vu

    Was it that long ago that locating a place where one was permitted to use the restroom was a formidable task?

    Was it so long ago that disparaging names were hurled at a put upon minority?

    Perhaps Mayor Bellamy has forgotten the self-destructive names resulting from such activities. After all, our Constitution allows for demonstrations by trucculent minorities. The Constitution provides for them to.

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