Don’t scapegoat the homeless

I was dismayed by some statements published in the Asheville Citizen-Times recently and attributed to Asheville City Council member Jan Davis.

An article in the Dec. 15 Citizen-Times titled "Police Hope to Boost Presence Downtown With Substation" said that "Residents and business owners have voiced concerns over nuisance crimes such as public drunkenness and panhandling, often committed by the city's homeless population."

It was a paraphrase, not a direct quote, but this statement was attributed to Davis. And in the next paragraph, the Council member is quoted as saying that a downtown police substation is "a way to have better exposure and keep control of the bad guys" — the implication being that homeless folks are the bad guys.

Mr. Davis, the homeless are NOT the bad guys, and I resent this implication!

I realize that not all of Asheville's homeless are veterans, but many are. And as a veteran myself, I strongly resent your calling some of my fellow veterans "bad guys."

I've only been in town about six months, but I have witnessed more "public drunkenness" among the people stumbling out of bars on Lexington Avenue than anywhere else in town.

As for panhandling, sure, there's people around asking for a dollar. But what would YOU do if you were in their shoes?

Let me give you a challenge: Strip yourself of all your creature comforts. Leave the suit and wingtips at home. Leave behind your 42-inch, flat-screen TV with the remote control. Forget the fridge that's stocked with food that will be thrown out before it's eaten, and get out of the nice auto you probably drive.

Take one change of clothes, a bedroll and a backpack, and spend five nights in the city of your choice. But pick a city where you don't know anyone: You have to learn for yourself what resources (if any) are available. You have to find (probably on your own) somewhere warm to sleep (remember, you can't use American Express). And on top of this, you need to find something to eat. I'll wager it won't be long before you, too, are asking people for a dollar.

Being homeless and hungry doesn't make someone bad: It just makes them homeless and hungry.

Last night there were an estimated 150,000 homeless veterans in this country. There are beds enough for only 100,000 of them. That means that 50,000 spent the night on the streets, with a friend or neighbor, or in the woods, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

It's been estimated that, on average, each of us is only three paychecks away from being homeless. I would think that a public servant with your intellect and insight would understand this.

Frankly, I'm amazed at two things here in Asheville. First, the general population's widespread acceptance of the homeless, and the lengths to which many local groups and individuals go to help and serve the homeless among us. I've traveled all over the world, and the care and help and love that Asheville demonstrates for the homeless places it easily among the top three cities I've seen.

Second, I'm amazed that you have the cojones to publicly equate the homeless with "bad people." Maybe you're living proof of the old joke about the guy who looked up the word "politics." He found out that "poli" means "many" … and "tics" means "blood-sucking creatures."

I'd like to remind you of an old saying: "There but for the grace of God go I."

So the next time you're out and about and you see someone picking through an ashtray to fish out a half-smoked cigarette or digging through the trash to find something to eat, don't let the idea that they're a bad person enter your mind. Instead, focus on the thought that "There but for the grace of God …"

Asheville resident Jerry Nelson, a photographer and Navy veteran, has traveled the U.S. and the world chronicling "the joys and the sorrows of life." You can view his online gallery at www.JourneyAmerica.org.
Being homeless and hungry doesn't make someone bad: It just makes them homeless and hungry.

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12 thoughts on “Don’t scapegoat the homeless

  1. cwaster

    I agree, they are not the bad guys. But some of them ARE bad guys. I lost my job last year. I was not homeless, but pretty poor. I had a homeless fellow ask me for 5 bucks on the street and I had to refuse as I did not have it. He threatened me with violence and was obviously so drunk he couldn’t walk right as he staggered across the street after me.
    I used to live on Liberty Street. Night after night homeless men who were crashing under the nearby overpass would knock on my door really late asking for money and me just at the poverty line at the time. They would curse at me if I had no change to spare. One threw a brick at my window. Another tried to break in when I was away and the neighbors caught him. One of them broke out the car window of my old Nova and stole a bag of pennies worth 4 bucks. I moved, needless to say.
    So. I think the point here is to not let a few rotten apples ruin the bushel.

  2. Good point. But, how do you KNOW:

    #1 It was the homeless men who crashed under the overpass were the ones knocking?

    #2 That the guy that threw the brick through the window as also one of these same homeless?

    #3 And finally, how do you KNOW “one of them” broke the window and stole the bag of change?

  3. BigAl

    Jerry Nelson is the one who is generalizing here. he takes the statements “…public drunkeness and panhandling, often committed by the city’s homeless population” and “keep control of the bad guys” and makes the leap to “I strongly resent your calling some of my fellow veterans “bad guys.” I am a veteran too and on my frequent visits downtown, I have witnessed entire intersections taken over by young, agressive panhandlers. I want more police presence to target these thugs, and even if they are veterans down on thier luck, there is still no excuse for the verbal (and threatened physical) abuse that I have seen offered to those who do not give in to their street-level blackmail. I could not identify these thugs’ backgrounds, but they did not seem to me to be veterans, but young hustlers who flock to asheville for its’ “weird, hip, alternative” atmosphere (which the Asheville civic community unwisely cultivates) only to arrive and find that there is no free lunch, in fact no entry-level jobs or housing, but a steady flow of tourists to mooch off of. I have never seen such behviour from the homeless veterans that I have seen around the ABCCM shelter east of Asheville.

    My bottom line is: homeless veterans may or may not be the problem, but there IS a problem downtown and the more APD we can get into problem areas, the sooner the better. As my drill sergeant always told me, “the maximum effective range of an excuse is zero meters”. Jerry’s concern is laudible, but his excuses for these criminals is not.

  4. cd

    Yeah, how do you know? Maybe the people knocking at your door dressed themselves to look like the people you saw at the underpass – to fool you. Maybe the culprits really have jobs and homes, and just do this, in disguise, on the side, and know that the homelees will be blamed? Do you reaaly know?

  5. cwaster

    First of all, the police told me the break in artist was a homeless man with a history of drugs and drink. Second, I saw the man throw the brick and then saw him panhandling later at the gas station on Merrimon as he was getting ran off by the police. The broken car window was fingerprinted and the culprit (although not charged) was a chronically homeless person with a history of mental disturbance according to the report. That’s how I know.

    By the way, I was approached by a veteran homeless man for some change during the same time. I had none- but I did give him my lunch and didn’t eat lunch that day. He needed it more than I and I appreciate what veterans have done for our country. Most of the problem people were not veterans (as far as I know) but more like BigAl says.

  6. Asheville Dweller

    “I could not identify these thugs’ backgrounds, but they did not seem to me to be veterans, but young hustlers who flock to asheville for its’ “weird, hip, alternative” atmosphere (which the Asheville civic community unwisely cultivates) only to arrive and find that there is no free lunch, in fact no entry-level jobs or housing, but a steady flow of tourists to mooch off of.”

    You said a mouth full, I ran into some of these folks on Tunnel Road needing a ride downtown when I declined (there about 7 of them) they became quite agressive, I am glad this I was in a public place or it might of turned south.

  7. annica2

    let’s not forget to thank the folks at firestorm cafe for welcoming the homeless with open arms and tons of hospitality, as well as all the genuine people who frequent the shop who are also very friendly to the homeless who go there.

  8. andy

    Been there, done that. Speaking from PERSONAL experience, a HUGE portion of the street dwelling homeless are drug addicts and/or alcoholics. There are the mentally ill as well, but a huge percentage of that population has drug or alcohol problems as well. The new cool phrase for that is a “co-occurring disorder.”

    I was homeless, so I know exactly what I’d do in that situation…..get my shit together and get on with life.

    Sink or swim.

  9. Asheville Dweller

    “You/I suspect” is exactly right.

    Not everything in this town is as cheerful as you wish

  10. Piffy!

    [b]Not everything in this town is as cheerful as you wish [/b]

    You being but one shining example.

  11. Piffy!

    you know, lots of us disheveled, grumpy, drunken people do indeed have jobs and homes and even families and just dont really care to shave and stuff. it doesnt mean we’re all homeless.

  12. Piffy!

    [b]The broken car window was fingerprinted and the culprit (although not charged) was a chronically homeless person with a history of mental disturbance according to the report.[/b]

    The police fingerprinted for an auto-break in? REALLY? That’s a first.

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