BY JOHN KLOECKNER
I am currently homeless in Asheville. Although I don’t seek services from any organization apart from an occasional meal, clean clothes, a cup of coffee or a shower, I’m familiar with the services available and the various churches and other organizations that assist local people in need. I come from a middle-class lifestyle and a solid family background.
This idea of a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness is hyperbole, not an achievable goal. Many local homeless people feel the plan is a political tool used to help the general voting public sleep better at night, thinking that something’s being done. The truth is, someone will become homeless tomorrow, and there are several people currently living on the street here who were skipping middle school when the original plan was adopted.
Homelessness will never “end.” The problems that cause homelessness and that homeless people face are not just a question of housing. Homeward Bound has helped a lot of people, but subsidized housing is not the appropriate first step for everybody, and meanwhile, it creates a two-way street of dependency. For starters, the 10-year plan needs a more realistic name in order to create a realistic vision.
Many homeless people are victims of some form of loss, abuse, neglect, poverty, addiction or mental illness, or are ex-cons or bankrupt or simply out of work, but that’s not everybody. Asheville’s homeless population has just as much character as the rest of this community, and for me, it’s been a privilege to earn the respect and friendship of these peers. The sad part is that so many others are missing out on some incredible people simply because of a preconceived prejudice.
The five-year extension plan should start with the simplest and easiest-to-achieve objective: Stop treating people differently just because they are different or live differently than you do. It’s a simple question of EQUALITY. We’re not all the same, yet all people should be equally respected. We are black, white, male, female, LGBT, and we come from every religion, nationality, background and social class that exists. We’re looked down upon by society and even by some of those who offer us their services, as if we were incompetent, weak, ignorant or whichever other stereotype people impose upon us.
Homeless people need A HAND UP rather than a handout. You can give away all the housing you want, but that’s not going to bring about real change in anyone’s life. Real change comes from incorporation, opportunity and empowerment. Street people (those who live on the streets by choice), homeless people and the underprivileged are all valuable assets to a community.
There’s a lot that could be done to assist both homeless and street people — and believe it or not, we could do it ourselves.
I’ve developed a detailed plan for creating nontraditional employment opportunities with flexible schedules, and I’ve discussed it with several church leaders and with street people who are willing to lead work crews. Downtown is a mess: Debris is everywhere. Neither the current Rivertop Contracting team nor the crew of six that walks around downtown with little brooms is as acquainted with the area as we are. In addition, we’re available on nights and weekends, when cleanup is most needed.
The $300,000 the city set aside for grafitti removal would be more than enough to establish a business/work program that would train and pay the underprivileged to perform various beneficial tasks, including a graffiti removal team that could be serving the community indefinitely. These opportunities could be expanded to include a county cleanup crew and further job training programs. There just needs to be some community leadership to help establish these options.
This is true not just for the homeless but for all underprivileged people who want to be a part of this community, and it would benefit Asheville in a variety of ways. We have a plan: There’s just nowhere to bring it to.
Meanwhile, providing lockers and/or a day center with longer hours and more extensive facilities (things like washers and dryers, more showers and toilets, and computer access beyond the one hour a day the library allows) would clean up a lot of the congestion on city streets and in the parks.
The AHOPE Day Center closes at noon, forcing people to carry their gear with them the rest of the day, regardless of whether it’s rain or shine. The freedom to move about without lugging suitcases, trash bags and shopping carts would enable people to make it to services or look for a job. We have a plan for this also, but again, there is nowhere to bring it to.
What government officials and agencies also fail to realize is that for many people, this is a lifestyle. Street life is a subculture and an emerging fringe element of society, and due to our current economic climate, our numbers are growing. We’re not all criminals, addicts or bums: Many of us are artists, musicians, writers, adventurers and travelers, and this is how we choose to live. Not everyone wants debt, a daily grind or even family picnics; we’re not all interested in local politics; we’re not stupid or lazy; and while we may be considered crazy because we don’t live like everybody else, that’s our choice. We’re all brothers and sisters, living as one, and our struggles are just as real as anyone else’s.
Asheville is not two cities, the housed and the homeless. Asheville is my home, and it’s one city, one community and one people. We all live here together, sharing the same streets and parks and attending the same events. There are rich people, there are middle-class people, and there are the poor. That’s life — but we are all Ashevilleans.