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).