Homelessness has become a big issue in Asheville. Actually, it is a big issue around the country. When the pandemic restrictions on evictions ended, people who had been just barely holding on to their housing lost it. We have been increasingly experiencing more and more unhoused people. What is wrong with a country with so much wealth not being able to provide housing for everyone?
The solution most often offered is: “Build more affordable housing.” The fact is that we have plenty of housing; however, much of it is only occupied for a few weeks or months out of the year. Visitors come here to vacation. People with wealth have multiple places to be housed.
And then there are the hotels and Airbnbs with rooms empty much of the time. I doubt there is a time in Asheville when you can’t get a room somewhere. We have tried to take over some of the less attractive hotels for shelter for the unhoused, but then the neighbors scream, “Not in my backyard.” Many of those unhoused might have been your neighbors before some disaster befell them and they were pushed out.
People lose their homes due to foreclosure or eviction. What causes these losses? Often it is medical debt or other unexpected events. Someone loses his job; there is a climate catastrophe; or living from paycheck to paycheck no longer works. The pandemic only made it worse. And when the pause ended, more people were houseless.
How many of the unhoused people have lost their jobs? How many people are working and can’t afford housing? You can’t rent a place unless you can accumulate enough for deposit, first month’s and last month’s rent. That is practically impossible with a minimum-wage job. It is also difficult to get a job if you don’t have an address and phone number. And if you have no place to get cleaned up, wash your clothes and make yourself presentable.
Still, those of us who have housing resent seeing “tent villages” in our area. We continue to chase people from their temporary homes along the rivers and on unused land. It will discourage tourists who come to fill those hotel rooms and buy food in our restaurants, filling the coffers of those who have the capital to start a business.
We resent the people panhandling downtown or at intersections. We ask, “Why can’t they find a job?” Probably they can’t because they lack an address, adequate facilities to clean up or the ability to work without the security of a home. We say it is their fault for being addicted or in poverty. However, if one has lost one’s job, lost one’s home, perhaps lost the connections that made life livable, it is no wonder that one gives up and takes to using drugs or alcohol to drown the pain of all that loss. Where are the mental health supports needed to live in this world where poverty is side by side with enormous wealth?
There are many ways that we could address this situation. Presently, Buncombe Decides is asking the tourism council to use some of its money to build affordable housing for service workers. Some have suggested the universal basic income, which has been instituted in several places in the U.S. as an experiment and seems to be quite successful in helping people take a step up. Another suggestion is that we could charge property taxes that reflect the amount of time the property is inhabited. More tax for fewer days occupied. What do you think we should do?
— Kathryn Liss