Few issues cut to the heart of Asheville’s ideological wars like homelessness. Panhandlers, street kids and loitering are perennial sore spots in this city, and tempers tend to run high on both sides whenever these subjects come up.
That was certainly the case at City Council’s Oct. 15 work session.
“If you are a human being, you need to sleep somewhere. If you are a human being, you need to be able to urinate and defecate — end of story,” proclaimed Council member Holly Jones.
Citing continual complaints from downtown merchants and businesses, Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino had come to the meeting armed with a proposed ordinance that would substantially expand on the city’s existing restrictions on panhandling. The 1992 ordinance prohibits only aggressive panhandling (such as making continued requests or blocking someone’s way); in March, Council passed a separate ordinance banning soliciting along roads.
The new wording (drafted with the help of the city attorney’s office, the Police Department and city planners) puts a blanket ban on soliciting in two specific areas: most of downtown and the Biltmore Historic District. The proposed language also establishes no-begging buffers around certain businesses outside those areas (10 feet for restaurants, 50 feet for banks). In addition, soliciting after dark or while intoxicated would be prohibited citywide.
Contacted later, Assistant City Attorney Curt Euler said that “solicitation” includes not only begging, but also unlicensed street performers asking for money and people collecting for charity. In order to be constitutional, the ordinance must treat everyone the same, he explained.
First-time violations, which would be considered a class-three misdemeanor, would carry a possible $50 fine — an unrealistic punishment, noted Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy, considering that most violators would probably be homeless and impoverished. Under current law, first offenders are fined court costs; a second offense carries a $50 fine.
But what really seemed to stoke Council members’ conflicting ideologies were proposed prohibitions on public urination and sleeping on public property.
Much of the discussion centered on whether the new ordinance puts too much emphasis on restriction and enforcement and not enough on treating the problem at a fundamental level.
Holly Jones led the charge, declaring that the added restrictions “criminalize poverty and homelessness.”
“If you are the least among us — who I think we have the most responsibility to care for — then you cannot sleep anywhere,” she complained. For her to be able to support such rules, said Jones, the city would have to compensate somehow, such as by providing public restrooms and increased support for local shelters.
But Mayor Charles Worley was equally adamant about not removing any of the new language from the proposed ordinance. “I can’t, under any circumstances, condone relieving oneself in public,” he said.
The city, asserted Worley, has provided public restrooms in the past, and they’ve been destroyed by “these same people we’re trying to deal with.” Besides, he said, there are restrooms and beds in shelters. “I haven’t seen anything that tells me that the shelters are overcrowded and overflowing … so that there is absolutely no alternative but to sleep somewhere outside. I think that is a matter of choice.”
“Some people aren’t allowed in shelters for whatever reason, maybe past behaviors,” countered Jones. “You can call that ‘They made their own bed, now they can’t sleep in it.'” Other homeless folks, she said, may have mental illnesses that prevent them from going to shelters.
Council member Jim Ellis pointed out that public buildings, such as city hall and the library, have restrooms that can be used by anyone –at least during the day. But he added, “If somebody is urinating in public, there is some other problem we need to help them with,” he said.
Steering the discussion back to matter of complaints by city residents, City Manager Jim Westbrook said that people sleeping on park benches and in other public places “gives tourists a bad idea of the area.”
“It’s complaint-driven,” Annarino agreed, saying that the APD receives several such complaints a day: “There’s a man sleeping here, someone sleeping over here, someone begging over here.”
Vice Mayor Bellamy took issue with the enforcement side of the ordinance — specifically, the $50 fine for first offenses. “Where are they going to get the money? They are not going to pay. Then we lock them up,” she predicted. Citing the need for a comprehensive plan, Bellamy suggested sending a letter to Gov. Mike Easily exploring the idea of a housing program for newly released convicts, to make sure that they don’t simply become homeless.
Initially, Jones said she wanted the two offending provisions removed, but when other Council members supported the new language, she asked that a separate vote be taken on each item, rather than voting on the ordinance as a whole. “I’d like to support most of the ordinance, but I don’t feel like my conscience can lend me to support the whole thing,” said Jones.
Although both Worley and Council member Carl Mumpower opposed the idea, both said they were willing to explore voting on the terms on a section-by-section basis, so that Council members could pass the parts they agreed on and register their disagreement on the rest.
Because of a crowded agenda next week, Council plans to revisit that angle at its Nov. 12 formal session.
City retools mission statement
A team of city staffers, charged with re-drafting Asheville’s official mission statement, came to Council with the fruits of their labors. The draft statement, said City Development Director Sasha Vrtunski, was created by soliciting input from city staff, comparing what different people said, and identifying common words and phrases. Here’s the result: “The City of Asheville is committed to delivering an excellent quality of service to enhance your quality of life.”
The new mission statement drew applause from Council members; it still awaits their official approval, however.
A nod for Worley
Mayor Worley has been nominated for the position of second vice president of the board of directors of the N.C. League of Municipalities.
Saying the nomination “speaks well of Asheville,” Ellis read the entire resolution to Council, despite Worley’s protest that “You don’t have to read it all if you don’t want to.”
On a motion by Ellis, the resolution was unanimously approved (Council member Joe Dunn was absent from the meeting).
Votes on resolutions are not usually taken during work sessions, but Council broke with protocol in order to adopt the measure before the league’s Oct. 20 meeting in Durham. Worley and Mumpower plan to attend the meeting.
Calling all city residents
In lieu of a regular Council session, a community meeting will be held Tuesday, Oct. 29 at the William F. Wolcott Jr. Building (161S. Charlotte St.). City staff will be available to answer questions beginning at 6:30 p.m. The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. For more information, call the city clerk’s office at 259-5601.