Asheville’s most un-wanted

“In the wealthiest country in the world, it’s morally wrong to leave our most vulnerable people in the streets. Our children and our grandchildren will look back on this period and ask, ‘What were they thinking?'”

— A-Hope Director Martha Are, co-chair of the
Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Coalition

They’re commonly referred to as winos, beggars, street drunks, urban vermin, derelicts, homeless people and crackheads. Some beg as a way of life and are chronically drunk on wine, liquor, beer or mouthwash, or high on crack cocaine. Some are indigent and live under bridges on the interstate or sleep for the night wherever they happen to pass out. Others have homes, receive Social Security benefits, and live normal lives … when they’re not on a binge. According to Lt. Jon Kirkpatrick of the Asheville Police Department, this group of local citizens numbers about 45 men and women, all told.

Asheville business owners see these people as a threat to their bottom line (and in some cases, they are). The police, tired of being caught in the middle between complainers and do-gooders, are exasperated by the daily stresses of dealing with extreme drunkenness and habitual panhandling. Overburdened courts and jails have neither time nor space for these folks. And when they’re drunk, even the doors of the homeless shelters are closed to them (except in extreme weather). Some local people want to sweep these individuals from our downtown streets — by whatever means necessary.

One obstacle, however, stands in the way of eliminating them: They are human beings. They have names. They laugh for joy and cry when in pain just like everybody else. Sadly, many of them have been kicked around like mongrel dogs from the time they were delivered from their mothers’ wombs. Many suffer from chronic pain, depression, schizophrenia and a host of other mental/physical illnesses. A significant number are military veterans plagued by posttraumatic stress disorder.

I’ve encountered severely addicted people begging in the streets in every state and country I’ve ever visited. They’ve always been a part of town and city life, and always will be. In many places, these folks are absorbed into the culture as an inevitable part of the life experience. But in America — the wealthiest country in the world — they are treated as outlaws, nuisances and threats to the status quo. Consequently, the police spend an inordinate amount of time and resources removing them from public spaces.

While pondering this issue, I was reminded of a scene I’d witnessed in Budapest, Hungary. I was sitting in Moszkva Ter, a square on the Pest side of the Danube River. A throng of gypsies from Transylvania crowded the public space — some peddling their wares, some begging from passers-by, some huddling together in animated conversation while sipping from bottles of homemade wine. Suddenly, perhaps prompted by some subtle warning I didn’t hear, they hurriedly gathered their belongings and disappeared into the shadows and crevices of the square. One minute they were there, the next they were gone. I was baffled. I couldn’t imagine what was going on. Moments later, two police officers strolled through the area on their regular beat, crossing from one end of the square to the other. As soon as they’d passed out of sight, the gypsies reappeared as suddenly as they’d vanished, resuming the day’s business as if nothing had ever happened.

Policing beggars in the streets of Asheville isn’t much different. Even when the police catch them red-handed and issue citations or arrest them, they pick up right where they left off as soon as they’re set free. I see it all the time. In street lingo, it’s called “coming over the hill.” As soon as they’re released from the Buncombe County Detention Center, they walk over the hill to the center of town in search of the next drink or fix.

Even when whole groups are aggressively swept away, a new group appears to take their place. And if roadside panhandling were somehow eliminated, panhandlers would devise different methods and carry on.

Relying solely on the heavy hand of the law serves only to further burden already overtaxed courts, creating more red tape and consuming the time of officers whose resources are sorely needed for dealing with murder, rape, domestic violence, burglary — in other words, crimes that actually threaten the safety of community residents.

I’m not criticizing the APD. For the past two years, they’ve worked to field officers who are street-savvy and can treat even difficult people humanely. But the police aren’t sufficiently trained in social services, nor are they psychiatrists. Even so, they’re probably well aware that arresting and ticketing the panhandlers and the addicted doesn’t address the root causes of the problem.

Many Asheville business owners have responded with tolerance, even when they’ve been pressed far beyond the call of duty. Caregivers toil day after day in the often thankless job of serving the most indigent — providing free meals, shelter, clothing and kindness. Nonetheless, the problem persists. In the 10 years I’ve lived in downtown Asheville, nothing has changed, despite aggressive law enforcement, benevolent services, and attempts to reform or save the indigent and the addicted.

What to do?

Most importantly, regardless of an individual’s state of disintegration, the community can ill afford to write that person off as a mere statistic culled from the police blotter or a piece of litter to be swept out of sight. Nor can we dismiss these folks as collateral damage in the embattled trenches of capitalism. Granted, serving those in the clutches of a desperate addiction is no easy task. All who have grappled with alcoholism and addiction know that the worst times are marked by belligerence, intimidation, rudeness and outright danger. Yet, other times, these same people display a profound sweetness and purity of soul, enriching the community with stories and wisdom that both confound and delight.

The fellowship of community meals can be helpful. Warm food, a smile and a respite from the hectic streets often have a sobering effect that softens even the roughest edges. All groups who serve free meals need more volunteers, as well as donations of nourishing food. (Too often, the standard fare consists of sweets and too many carbohydrates.) And for people in need, it’s helpful to know when and where these services are available. Directing an individual to a particular service is an offering in lieu of money, which is obviously being solicited for the next drink of cheap wine, bottle of mouthwash or rock of crack cocaine.

I encourage service-minded citizens to spend a few hours a week downtown providing a kind and peaceful presence. Make friends with the people of the street. Their names are John, Mary, Richard, Susan — not homeless person, derelict, drunk or crackhead. Sit in Pritchard Park and share a sandwich or a cup of coffee. I suggest working in groups of two or three: Watch out for one another; stay alert to potential problems. Enjoy the day (and, while you’re at it, pick up litter!).

Offer the people you meet a cool drink of water instead of money. Dehydration is a critical and life-threatening consequence of excessive alcohol consumption. Have Band-Aids(R) and salve available for treating cuts and scrapes. Often, those simple gestures can provide a moment of light and a ray of hope.

Mercy and compassion never fail, especially when offered by those who’ve stopped deceiving themselves and know that no living being is any better than any other.

Lastly, it’s important to keep a balanced perspective on the true state of our society. There are more beggars, panhandlers, liars and swindlers among the status quo — with far more destructive addictions — than among the denizens of public thoroughfares.

It has become glaringly obvious that corporate criminals and politicians will stoop to the lowest forms of beggary to solicit their campaign bribes. National leaders wave their flags and beg the public to spend, spend, spend while wisdom calls us toward the work of conservation. Legislators at the national, state and local levels manipulate our money to provide corporate welfare while voting to eliminate funds for the disabled, mentally ill and elderly.

In light of the real threats to safety and security, spare change is small potatoes.

Hopefully, our community will continue to grow and develop along the lines of tolerance, mercy and compassion in all matters — for these are our most certain assurances of quality of place and true homeland security. Failing that, we can look forward only to more guns, more police, more money and an endless string of ineffective laws and ordinances.

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