To fear or not to fear? A little understanding can go a long way in West Asheville

Shannon Spencer

BY SHANNON SPENCER

There’s been a lot of conversation in West Asheville the last few months about fear. It seems that the uptick in the visible presence of folks who are homeless or living in poverty along Haywood Road has caused some to feel alarmed. Over the summer, there were complaints of public urination, panhandling, needle litter and trash. It was a quick fix to blame four organizations — Firestorm Books & Coffee, The Steady Collective, Kairos West and Asheville Poverty Initiative — for these complaints, but in reality, all four have been doing their work for over two years without these present challenges.

So what’s changed? Truthfully, what is being experienced on Haywood Road is not completely new to West Asheville. Of course, that’s not to dismiss or negate the complaints. No one wants these things happening in their backyard or front stoop — even in a caring, alternative and socially aware community like West Asheville. These are real challenges — challenges that come from a growing gap between those who have too much and those who don’t have what they need, with too few methods of how the resources can be shared. It’s always been that way, but why now is it more visible?

This summer, we learned the uptick of the homeless presence in West Asheville stemmed, in part, from the removal of homeless camps in the River Arts District. We are told to expect a continued increase, as more camps will be removed along the river in Carrier Park. As Asheville continues to grow, more folks on the margins are finding their way to our city, while those who are already here are increasingly being displaced, with few options. The places and areas where the houseless had found respite are now being built up and built on.

At Asheville Poverty Initiative’s 12 Baskets Café, we use 100 percent rescued, already-prepared food to serve a free lunch five days a week at Kairos West Community Center. It’s amazing to see the quality of food we get to share daily! Yes, the most obvious benefit is offering sustenance for those physically hungry. Yet that’s not our primary purpose.

We aim to “get filled” physically, socially, emotionally and intellectually. That’s why we operate a café and not a soup kitchen. There is a waitstaff. We eat off beautiful, handmade pottery by The Village Potters set on round tables. Folks get to order off a menu. People from all walks of life join us because, at the end of the day, we each recognize that we are more than our life circumstance. Each of us is both a “have” and a “have-not.” Some come for the food, others for the fellowship. We have a number of retirees join us simply because they are “tired of eating alone.”

We believe that by creating an alternative social space that dismantles stereotypes that stem from inaccurate myths and assumptions regarding those from all socioeconomic realities, we can begin to recognize one another as neighbors again. Context helps reduce the fear of “the other.”

Those of us at the café now feel safer walking in West Asheville because we know the folks on the streets, and they know us. We know their stories, and they know ours. When we pull up to an intersection and someone is there asking for money, we can roll down our window and call each other by name. No longer is this interaction a transactional one — where money is the only thing (if anything) shared — but a transformational one, where we are seen, named and honored. And believe me, all folks make better decisions when they feel cared for.

Now, with all that said, poverty and homelessness are not to be romanticized. The trauma many of these folks experience is real and can come out in some pretty ugly ways. And there is a small percentage of those on the streets who would be better served in rehab and, unfortunately, it is their behavior — almost exclusively when under the influence — that enables a negative association with the houseless.

But for the vast majority, who of us can say we’ve never raised our voices in an argument? Or cursed at someone with whom we were angry? How many of us have a drink or two at night or eat a special brownie to unwind? The only difference between those on the streets doing it and those you know is that the latter have places to privatize these behaviors. Those in poverty are forced to live their lives in a fishbowl and air all their dirty laundry (metaphorically and literally speaking) in a public arena. And then we judge them for it. And, of course, we aren’t even mentioning those who are on the autism spectrum or those struggling with mental illness.

Relationships may not solve all the problems. But one thing is certain — it can only help. The challenges facing West Asheville, while frustrating, are not the fault of any one or even four organizations. The cause is layered, varied and systemic. Folks are struggling to survive, and, as a community, we can change that. We must recognize that as long as we prioritize more hotels, more restaurants, more new construction (none of which is wholly bad), we must also acknowledge the consequences of those priorities — the displacement of people on the margins — and find ways to sustainably address them.

The Rev. Shannon Spencer, who holds a doctorate in ministry, is the executive director of the Asheville Poverty Initiative (www.ashevillepovertyinitiative.org).

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10 thoughts on “To fear or not to fear? A little understanding can go a long way in West Asheville

  1. S Patel

    Firestorm is a self proclaimed “anti-capitalist”, and “anti-authoritarian” bookstore that peddles their ideology to young children and adults alike. It has also been promoting a needle sharing program (Shared Collective) and sexual promiscuity (free prophylactics) under the guise of goodwill. Programs like these are the reason for the onslaught of the homeless population, the drugs, crime, and filth. The needle sharing program has attracted the attention of drug addicts from areas as far as Greenville, SC. They now roam Haywood Rd without shoes and without home. They fight each other to steal property to trade for more drugs. They leave behind broken needles and trash on public sidewalks. These are the same sidewalks that the bookstore uses to influence young children coming home from school; sidewalks where children have to step over broken needles and trash. The bookstore fully understands that their programs will increase crime and in turn ruin West Asheville neighborhood property values. Asheville Police has already arrested a homeless man who assaulted a homeless woman in front of Firestorm. Family Dollar has seen greater than a 3-fold increase in theft and has called authorities several times to remove vagrants from the store. Sunny Point has lost part of it’s spring and summer vegetable garden to thievery. This business on Haywood Rd is not family friendly. This video tells all -> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_SOj7wjGpo – fast forward to 1:19:52.

    • Libertie Valance

      You got us, friend! Firestorm is a bookstore run by supervillains. Our ingenious plot to destroy West Asheville was the promotion of birth control and other public health programs endorsed by our puppets at the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association. And we would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids! 🕵️‍♂️😂

      • dyfed

        Do you have anything to say about this that isn’t a joke?

        Actions have consequences; your actions have had negative consequences for your community. Show accountability and responsibility. Or do you only care about your local community insofar as you get to do what you want to do?

        • @dyfed, Members of my co-operative have had many thoughtful, earnest conversations with fellow community members over the last four months. I’m not going to dignify conspiracy theories and wild misrepresentations from an internet troll like Sanjit Patel. If you are looking for factual information about the syringe access program, you can find it at http://bit.ly/needlesonhaywood. And we’re always happy to have a serious conversation IRL—just drop by the store and say hello!

  2. Jay

    Im as liberal they they come, but I’m an idiot. There’s a big difference between enabling and helping out. What firestorm is doing is enabling and turning that economically viable part of West Asheville into a needle dump soup kitchen. What incentive will these people have to turn their lives around when Firestorm keeps wiping their behinds?

    • Stacy Sims

      Plus other cities see you are wiping behinds and the other cities buy them bus and plane tickets to Asheville. Best thing to do is buy them a bus ticket to Miami or somewhere.

  3. Shannon Spencer

    Hey Y’all, just a couple of clarifications. Firestorm does not run a soup kitchen. There are four organizations that share 610 Haywood Rd. Firestorm is a bookstore. The Steady Collective Needle Exchange is one of the many programs Firestorm allows to use their back room community space. The Steady Collective uses that space 2.5 hours a week. Downstairs is Kairos West Community Center that is a ministry out of All Soul’s Episcopal Church and the WNC Diocese. 12 Baskets Cafe is a program run by Asheville Poverty Initiative that is one of the many groups using the Community Center. It is not a soup kitchen. Are there challenges? Yes. Many of which stem from the fact that as we continue to grow as a city, we still only have one day center. In other words, the only place in the city where folks who are homeless can go without being “moved along” is AHOPE – a wonderful program by Homeward Bound. In fact, this is the only day center in WNC. The small house used as the center was initially meant to host upwards of 50 people a day years ago. But now – this same small house – is seeing 200+ because the need has grown that much. Folks need a place to be. If they are living in a shelter they must be out after an early breakfast and can’t return until late afternoon. Imagine having to carry everything you own around day in and day out in shoes that don’t fit because it’s all they had at the clothing closet – and walking in the rain or freezing temps. Most of these folks are trying to do good and want desperately to get their feet back under them. Imagine – even with a 40 hour a week job at minimum wage, there are few places to afford in Asheville. Our teachers and public services officers even struggle with their salaries. Now add to that the upfront cost of first month, last month and security deposit. If you are even able to afford the monthly cost of an apt. with your income, where is the initial amount required going to come from? The majority of “these” people that we demonize without knowing their stories are struggling to get out of the situation they are in. Being compassionate to them is hardly enabling. And I don’t work with Steady Collective but the correlation to giving clean needles to addicts to reduce Hep C/HIV/AIDS/Death outbreaks (including giving out resources for recovery) seems a little like arguing that sex education and contraceptives will increase sexual activity – a myth that has been debunked by nearly every credible agency. Most studies actually reveal the opposite is true. If folks believe that what happens at 610 is enabling any poor behavior, please come and visit. Honestly, before being in the same building as Firestorm, I believed many of the assumptions around anarchy. But after getting to know the co-op that runs the bookstore I’ll be the first to say I was wrong. While as a minister and Christian I do not adhere to the ideology of anarchy – I have 0 worries about taking my daughters into the bookstore and having amazingly interesting conversations. Even working in the church for two decades I can say these folks are some of the kindest, community oriented, justice seeking that I’ve ever met. The church has in many ways peddled more harmful rhetoric than these folks (and I can say that and still believe in the transformative power of church). Come into the cafe and get to know some of these folks who we, all too often, deem only “the needy.” And to be clear – because I think it’ s important – if there is inappropriate or illegal behavior, folks are asked to leave. If the behavior is consistently disrespectful, they are not welcomed back until it changes. 12 Baskets Cafe, first and foremost, is about building community and reducing fear of the other. We use food to bring folks in from all walks of life to deconstruct the false binaries of the “haves” and the “have nots.” It’s working, too. Now, are their jerks who are living on the streets – those who appear to have no interest in changing? Of course! But who of us can say that we don’t know a jerk or two living in a house and who has a good job? And from what we’ve seen, the percentage of folks for which this is true is significantly small. Is there blame to be laid? Yes – not on any specific organizations – but rather on a system of poverty and addiction and the continued lack of resources we have to address them effectively. We all care about our community. Let’s work together to make the changes we all want to see happen.

  4. Stacy Sims

    It will only get worse because of these programs. Atlanta, New York and even Portland OR have programs that buy these guys bus and plane tickets. If they see that “progressive Asheville” has homeless needle sharing and soup kitchens then it won’t be long before the town is overrun with homeless people. New York just sent some to Hawaii, Portland sent a bunch to Seattle, Seattle send a bunch to San Francisco, San Francisco sent a bunch to Atlanta and Atlanta must have send a bunch to Asheville. Atlanta is not going to let Buckhead or Downtown become overrun with homeless. They put them on a Greyhound. And Asheville doesn’t have money like the other cities.

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