Asheville’s recreation centers will get increased security staffing, and the Asheville Police Department will hire two new officers charged with investigating gangs, City Manager Gary Jackson told Council members during their Oct. 23 meeting. Savings elsewhere in the department’s budget will pay for these positions, so no Council vote was needed. “We want to make some short-term [changes] tonight,” Jackson explained. “But our work is far from over.”
These measures—which Jackson admitted will barely scratch the surface of a rising problem—come on the heels of two high-profile violent incidents in the last four months. In July, three people were injured when a gunman opened fire at the Stephens-Lee Center off South Charlotte Street, and police say a Sept. 30 shooting at a Montford birthday party that left three people injured was gang-related.
Police Chief Bill Hogan gave City Council a rundown of known major-gang activity in North Carolina, saying that more work needs to be done to determine just how much of a foothold gangs have established in Buncombe County. Hogan said his department has already begun networking with other governmental agencies, as well as both for-profit and nonprofit organizations, to share information. Three APD officers have also been trained in using GangNet, an online network that logs and tracks gang activity in the United States and Canada.
In addition, the Police Department will soon hire two new officers who will focus on investigating gang-related crimes, the chief reported.
On a more positive note, Hogan said that for nearly 10 months, a school resource officer has been posted at the W.C. Reid Memorial Recreation Center from 4 to 9 p.m., resulting in a 52-percent reduction in service calls at that location.
But the city’s efforts, he emphasized, need to go further—“not only in our recreation centers but in our parks.” Council members seconded that sentiment.
Council member Bryan Freeborn voiced support for the additional staff but added that there are larger issues involved. “I think this is a good approach in the short term,” he said, “but we need to look at environment, culture and economics.” Freeborn also stressed the need for a comprehensive after-school job program for students in the city and county schools.
Mayor Terry Bellamy agreed, saying that the kinds of problems that lead to gang behavior run deeper than what a few security staffers can address. Kids, she said, “want someone to love them, and gangs provide this.”
Mumpower applauded the fact that the city is now starting to address the street-level drug dealing that has long been one of his key concerns. “I’m delighted this is finally coming to fruition,” he said. “We should have turned toward this a long time ago.”
Mumpower also wondered whether there are full-blown gangs in Asheville or merely gang wannabes. Hogan responded that future investigations should help illuminate this issue.
“We’ve had some tragic things happen, but we have a chance to turn it around,” observed Vice Mayor Holly Jones.
Some in the community, noted Bellamy, have already stepped up to address such problems, rather than waiting for change to come to them. Earlier in the meeting, in connection with a proposal to award $215,000 to the Burton Street Recreation Center for renovations, Bellamy had congratulated neighborhood residents for their efforts to push drug dealers off the streets. Noting that the area was once notorious for open-air drug dealing, Bellamy said: “The Burton Street community has taken back their neighborhood. … They are saying to the City Council now, ‘We want our just dues.’” The money, said Parks and Recreation Director Roderick Simmons, will pay for new interior walls, windows and doors at the facility. The measure was approved on a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed.
Bringing it all back home
After two years, the city has decided to take direct control of its “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.” Formerly administered by the nonprofit Affordable Housing Coalition, the project will now be brought under the umbrella of the city’s Homeless Initiative. The coalition has received public funding from both the city and county, as well as federal Community Development Block Grants.
The change, recommended by city staff, was based on the idea that it’s easier for one city department to coordinate with others, such as the APD, Public Works and the Planning Department, Community Development Director Charlotte Caplan explained. During a community meeting in June, it was also suggested that the city’s efforts to house the homeless be merged with its attempts to address related social issues such as the operation of Pritchard Park and curtailing downtown drug use, noted Jackson.
But a major goal, said Jackson, is increasing logistical support for the “10-Year Plan,” which is based on the Housing First/Housing Plus model. Under that plan—first pitched here in 2004 by a White House appointee charged with rallying a response to homelessness nationwide—Asheville endorsed the idea of placing its chronically homeless population in housing with no strings attached, rather than requiring them to first seek treatment for addiction or find jobs (see “Turning the Tide on Homelessness,” June 28, 2006 Xpress). According to Caplan’s report, that campaign has successfully housed 228 homeless people since 2005, reducing the city’s chronically homeless population by 38 percent.
That, noted Bellamy, represents a victory for Asheville’s approach, which is now being used as a model by other cities around the country.
“The entire premise is, it is not ‘Housing Maybe’—it is ‘Housing First,’” said Howard Stone, executive director of the Asheville-based nonprofit Homeward Bound. “It results in a greater chance of [homeless addicts] seeking treatment.”
But Mumpower, who fought the plan in 2005 based on its lack of a requirement that addicts seek treatment, continued to bash the plan.
“I think this theory is built on a false premise,” he told Stone. “Your research runs contradictory to everyone else’s.”
For his part, Mumpower said he wants to see hard numbers showing that the number of calls for police and other emergency services has dropped since the program was implemented. Those numbers, said Caplan, are not yet available. Most of the people in question have only recently been placed in housing, she explained, so it could take some time to compile data relating to emergency calls.
Leaping to the program’s defense, however, Jones maintained that the data does support the Housing First model. “Carl, you are going to have to decide when you get research if you are going to believe it,” she said. Addicts, asserted Jones, are in a better position to seek treatment if they’re not also homeless. “They sure aren’t going to make it if they don’t have a shot,” she declared.
Mumpower’s doubts did not appear to sway his colleagues’ opinions, however. As Council member Jan Davis observed, “We have to do something, and this is something.”
Restructuring the Homeless Initiative will cost the city about $26,000 more per year, noted Caplan, but Council supported the move in a 6-1 vote with Mumpower opposed.
Jackson, meanwhile, assured Council members that city staff is “completely on board, based on this Council’s support.”