State of emergency

Asheville wants to end homelessness, right? That’s a noble cause, and I support the good intentions behind this effort. But if Asheville is ever going to achieve this lofty goal, we need to be honest about a few things first.

1) There’s a segment of Asheville’s homeless population that chooses it as a “lifestyle.”

Take 30 minutes to talk to people hanging around Prichard Park or Pack Square and you’ll encounter stories ranging from the heroic to the heartbreaking, from survival to surrender. There is indeed a segment of our community that has fallen through the cracks, and as a civilized society, we must address their suffering. The challenge, however, is to recognize that a significant portion of Asheville’s street population consists of people who are completely employable apart from their attitudes of anarchy and defiance toward “the man” (which you and I might call the American dream). Should such people be able to lie back in society’s safety net as if it were their own personal hammock?

2) No government that supports individual liberty—which goes hand in hand with personal accountability—can ever legislate an end to people’s bad decisions or hard luck.

From a policy standpoint, I believe the best thing the city can do is get out of its residents’ way. City Council can do this by reducing burdensome regulations and red tape that make it harder for community groups to help people in need. They can do it by reducing the tax burden on individuals and businesses (so they have more money to devote to helping their neighbors), and by forcefully advocating against state-government micromanagement and incompetence—which brings me to my main point.

3) Asheville’s residents and politicians have got to be much more aggressive with their state government.

The cold, hard fact of it is that if you ever truly want to see Asheville reach its potential and be empowered to make decisions that fit this city, you’ve got to get Raleigh off her back.

How does this relate to homelessness?

A few years back, the General Assembly and Gov. Mike Easley launched a legal crusade to reform North Carolina’s mental-health system. Despite screams from some of us who’ve worked in the behavioral sciences, warning of the debacle that lay ahead, and despite the passionate pleas of those who would be negatively impacted, know-it-all do-gooders in Raleigh passed these ill-researched reforms anyway. What has followed is a disintegration of epic proportions.

According to state auditors’ best guess, taxpayers have seen almost half a billion dollars wasted. And an investigation by The News & Observer of Raleigh into the quality of care at state mental-health hospitals since the reforms found that more than 80 patients have died under suspicious circumstances related to inadequate care.

But it doesn’t stop there. The state fired a highly rated longtime employee who’d released documents to the N&O, questioning her integrity in the press and publicly trying to destroy her reputation. In addition, Gov. Easley’s administration has admitted to destroying numerous public documents in relation to this emerging scandal. Since that admission, the head of the state Department of Transportation has sent out a memo to all 9,500 of its employees telling them it’s OK for them to go ahead and destroy public records of DOT communications as well. (Notice a trend developing here?)

But with so much waste and inefficiency in the delivery of care, so much apparent corruption and so much death, was there any chance that word wouldn’t get out on the street?

The truth is, North Carolina’s state government has ruined the mental-health system—and, in the process, has caused an increase in crime, in the prison population and in homelessness. Thanks to Raleigh, otherwise self-reliant people who were capable of a reasonably happy life are struggling to live week to week because they can’t get their medications refilled or the regular outpatient treatment they so desperately need. And the very politicians who caused all this are now engaged in an effort to cover it up by destroying documents and blaming local care providers.

Asheville has a statewide reputation as a very caring and compassionate city with unmatched services and safety nets for people who fall through the cracks. We ought to be proud of that. Now, however, people who’ve been shoved through the cracks and stomped on by the state are finding their way to the food lines, shelters and streets of Asheville.

So to Asheville City Council members who want to help end local homelessness, I say: Take a stand against a state government that continually screws up and expects us to clean up their mess. You have a strong and forceful public who will back you up.

[Matt Mittan hosts Take A Stand! on WWNC-AM, Monday through Friday from 3-6 p.m. The show’s Web site is]


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15 thoughts on “State of emergency

  1. travelah

    How, exactly, would restoring the Mental Health services of State government, resolve the issue of homelessness in Asheville? Are you suggesting that the homeless of Asheville are mentally ill and in need of State intervention? While I laud your exposure of the administration’s failures, I fail to see where your “plan” comes into play. Correction … you didn’t offer a plan but a plug for your radio program instead (not that it is a bad thing mind you)

  2. Eli Cohen

    Travelah, there you go again with a falsified dilemma. Matt’s message is a call to action, not a “plan”. That’s his job, he’s a journalist.

  3. Except for paragraph #1, I support Mittan’s position. The NC mental health system was sabataged into an unuseable, bureaucratic mess, and many mentally ill people are homeless as both a direct and indirect result. Some lost residential services, and others lost outpatient services that enabled them to stabilize enough to hold jobs and pay rent.
    The main problem I see is the NC system is too inteventionist and unwilling to help those who only need minor medications or assistance and will not cooperate with extensive inteventions. But I believe that is just the tip of the iceberg.

  4. Matt Mittan

    Eli, I think you’re being a bit hard on travelah. They are fair questions that I’m happy to address.

    The first question was “How, exactly, would restoring the Mental Health services of State government, resolve the issue of homelessness in Asheville?”

    I didn’t suggest that it would ‘solve’ homelessness. However, the mandates forced upon local communities in the area of Mental Health HAS had an enormous negative effect on individual communities… increasing homelessness, prison populations and the use/cost of other tax payer supported services. One such example is in the story linked below. A 14 year old girl has been held in prison since January because no mental health care can be found for her. The reason? The state.

    Another is this story, from New Hanover County, where waiting lists have formed for just basic, core mental health services… County Commissioners there were approached with an emergency funding request (to the tune of $2.4 million) by the area mental hospital. The local tax payers were being asked to pay for the states screw ups.

    I could go on and on with a list of RECENT examples of LOCAL pains and costs caused by the states’ ill-formed actions.

    My main point is that in North Carolina, unless we realize and counter the way that the state interferes – and sometimes down right undermines – local efforts, then we will never reach the goal of ending non-voluntary homelessness in Asheville.

    The second question was, “Are you suggesting that the homeless of Asheville are mentally ill and in need of State intervention?”

    I’m not ‘suggesting’ that there are SOME homeless folks in Asheville that are mentally ill – I am asserting it confidently as fact. Of course not all are mentaly ill – to that point, review what I started my column with… And I also did not assert that there needs to be state government intervention. Quite to the contrary… I feel that ‘state intervention’ is what caused this crisis. I want to see the state stop micro-managing so many aspects of local control and decision making.

    I am confident that, in the area of addressing social and economic concerns on the local level, the residents of Asheville can better address the challenges they face than politicians in Raleigh.

    Thanks for the chance to address this further. Good questions….

  5. I am more interested in addressing the home problem.

    These homes are destroying our neighborhoods. We need to enforce homelessness in order to save the villiage.

  6. travelah

    Matt, thank you for addressing my post (pay no attention to that green tinted man living under the bridge .. he is hard by nature)

    My first question focused on how your notion would resolve, not solve, the problem of homelessness in Asheville (and elsewhere in NC). You addressed certain issues appropriately. Certainly emptying facilities of those people who could have benefited with more care has contributed to the problem of homelessness. This was not a problem limited to NC by the way. Without wishing to sound crass, the 14 year old girl in your reply is not homeless but perhaps housed inappropriately.
    It goes without the necessity of repeating that there is a disproportionate number of mentally ill persons numbered among the homeless however the advocates I have discussed the issue with readily agree such people represent a minority of the homeless. The majority of homeless persons become such because of economic hardships or personal choice due to their lifestyle choices and addictions (alchohol predominantly). The mental health issues you properly raise do not address the circumstances of a majority of the homeless.
    Let’s assume the State mental health support situation was resolved to your satisfaction. What would you recommend as a course of actions to remedy the majority of homeless still left on the streets?

    (While I might be picking at you a bit, shucks, you are part of that 4th estate and I like seeing you folks offer solutions instead of just pointing out the problems …. besides I have to listen to your show on the way home cuz you preempt Hannity HA!)

  7. Rob Close

    seems like matt is just offering a good start to the solution, one which has been quite overlooked lately – we’ve been searching for all the answers locally, while ignoring that we’re part of a larger state that has been failing us.

  8. travelah

    Matt is offering a good start by pointing to a problem with one piece of a much bigger issue. I am interested in his solutions to homelessness.

  9. Why do we need to ‘solve’ homelessness?

    Why not give em a blanket and let em sleep outside?

    homeownership isnt that great, actually. its kinda stressfull and expensive.

    Maybe we should all leave our homes and collectively live in a van down by the river?

  10. Alan Ditmore

    Good idea Sammule, then we would all see how actively mistreated we all are by govenment at every level.

  11. travelah

    Alan, can you identify one instance where you personally were actively mistreated by government? Now I don’t mean having to stand in line or having to get the government to correct a form or reportr. Tell me about your persecution.

  12. Eli Cohen

    “T” , Alan didn’t say he had been mistreated. He was theorizing that if you were homeless you might receive mistreatment.
    It’s a well documented fact that a significant number of the homeless are military veterans. Don’t you think that someone who slaughtered other humans for their country deserves to be taken care of? Some of these guys are unable to function as a result of their wartime experiences. (they weren’t all sociopaths)

  13. quotequeen

    “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?”
    — Mohandas Gandhi

  14. Alan Ditmore

    The last time I was personally and actively mistreated by government was just a few days ago when I was at the library and got a headache. when I stopped reading and lay my head down on the table, the hired guard though maybe I looked homeless and told me to sit up or he would kick me out of the library.
    this was an albeit minor example of government spending EXTRA taxpayer money to make life more difficult for homeless people or anyone who may be frugal enough to be mistaken for one.
    A longer time ago, I paid thousands of dollars in additional rent because of government zoning which certainly constituted mistreatment. And I am being mistrated right now by government regulation keeping me from subdividing my farm quickly, environmentally, affordably, or the way I want. Plus government regulation of junkyards is keeping me from maintaining my car better or more affordably, often forcing me to buy new parts instead of recycling auto parts.

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