Whose space is public space?

Pip Flickinger


On Christmas Day 2021, the Asheville Police Department shut down an event in Aston Park. The resulting arrests, which have led to multiple ongoing, high-profile legal cases, have highlighted a troubling dynamic in the APD’s dealings with homeless individuals, advocates, volunteers and the media in recent years. As someone who’s worked locally in homeless services, I want to share my experience of such interactions as seen from the inside.

While doing outreach and running AHOPE Day Center, I saw people’s camps taken from them again and again, with little or no warning. Watching how this disrupts people’s lives, their ability to meet basic needs and their connection to health services has deeply shaped my current belief that providing commonsense support to camps in the form of things like trash service, bathrooms and basic dignity is a better answer than police sweeps. A 2019 report co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests that unless supportive services are also offered, camp evictions may actually decrease shelter utilization and prolong the amount of time that people stay unhoused.

Merely handing out a list of shelters that may not even have beds available to people who are being dislodged from the only homes they have does not remotely meet that standard.

Rising tensions

In the early days of COVID-19, almost all homeless services in Asheville shut down. There were virtually no reliable places where people could receive meals. In response to this, volunteers connected with the Asheville Survival Program began serving coffee and food, seven days a week, to fill the gaps.

And as meals and other services were slowly reestablished, ASP shifted to serving food and distributing clothes and camping gear on the weekends, as Saturdays and Sundays have historically been when the fewest options for warmth and food were available. Over the last several years, I have seen ASP volunteers — both people who live on the streets and those who live in houses — build beautiful, meaningful relationships and support one another through times of crisis, anger, sadness and joy.

Throughout this same period, however, I’ve watched tensions rise between the APD and these mutual aid volunteers. In December, I brought some pizzas to a community meal and art party in Aston Park. Subsequently, after weeks of surveillance, four officers came to my work to charge me with “aiding and abetting felony littering.” I later learned that I had also been banned from all city parks and other Parks & Rec facilities for three years. Through conversations, public records requests and comments at public meetings, it has become clear that these extreme reactions to food sharing and camp advocacy are rooted in political differences. There aren’t many local issues that are more contentious than where or whether homeless camps should exist, but I hope we can at least agree that responding to a community picnic by issuing felony charges and barring residents from public spaces is frightening, and not just to those of us who were charged: It is frightening to live in a city that views advocacy as a problem and uses prosecution to “solve” problems.

Talking trash

At the core of this is a question that concerns all of us: Who are Asheville’s public spaces for? According to the 2022 point-in-time count, 71% of people living on the streets were already residing in Asheville or Western North Carolina before they became homeless. And in my experience based on years of speaking with people on the streets, most have told me they were lifelong area residents. Other local organizations working in the field have consistently found this as well.

I would be willing to bet that if you asked local “housies” this same question, a far lower number would be able to make that claim. In other words, volunteers who are sharing food, and folks who are just trying to rest up in their hometown, have been pushed out of our public spaces as a result of the city’s prioritizing short-term rentals over the needs of people who already live here.

I also want to reframe what’s been described as “trash” in local coverage of camp evictions. When APD representatives say they cleaned up trash, they’re suggesting that people’s homes and other essential items are garbage. If I left my umbrella on a bench and someone threw it away, it wouldn’t mean that my umbrella was trash. It would simply mean that someone threw it away. The people we exclude from public spaces, and the things we refer to as worthless, say a lot about what we value as a community.

Dollars and sense

Meanwhile, on a more pragmatic level, let’s talk about costs. The amount of public resources the city is sinking into prosecuting 16 felony littering cases could probably have paid for dumpster services, bathrooms and other services at camps many times over. Research I conducted in connection with a grant proposal concluded that it would cost about $1,000 a month per camp to provide basic sanitation services. How much is the city spending on police, court-appointed attorneys and assorted other staff in connection with these cases?

Meanwhile, a January 2022 post on the city’s website reports that it costs the public $30,000 to $50,000 a year to provide services for someone who lives on the streets, versus $12,800 for supportive housing. I’d like to think that this mistreatment of our neighbors bothers all of us for purely ethical reasons, but if nothing else, it is economically indefensible.

Based on my years spent working in homeless services, I would encourage people to help make things better in two ways.

First, get to know the folks who live around you. Share food, thoughts and emotional support with them. If someone looks like they’re having a hard time, consider calling a neighbor or two instead of the APD, and see what forms of support you can all figure out together. The more city residents care for one another, the stronger and more resilient our community networks become!

Second, if you object to what the city is doing (and failing to do), please contact city officials or our district attorney’s office. Let them know you want to live in a place that cares for all those who live here — and that there is room for everyone.

Asheville resident Pip Flickinger has worked with the local homeless population since 2015 in both professional and volunteer capacities.


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10 thoughts on “Whose space is public space?

  1. Mike Rains

    APD is not the bad guy here; they are only following direction from City management (City Manager, Mayor and Council). But being on the ‘front line’ of the policy enforcement people mistakenly think they are deciding on the policy.
    If you disagree with the policy of not allowing our homeless to camp in public spaces, please consider directing your views toward City management and not APD. Thank you.

    • sinkhole

      I agree that city management should receive more ire, Debra Campbell and Esther Manheimer specifically, but APD is culpable in this as well.

      APD chose to violate their own policy of giving notice before sweeps and then change it retroactively. APD chose to go arrest people at their workplaces on felony littering charges. APD chose to engage in a PR campaign against the people the arrested, posting arrest photos of people on social media and claiming that people who have lived and worked in this community for years were outside agitators. APD performed the 20-some sweeps prior to this one. APD sent out the notices to people that they have been banned from public parks. APD staff has also been complicit in a misinformation campaign to further demonize the houseless community, playing up misleading crime statistics and misattributing crime to encampments. APD officers are going to be the ones testifying in court against the folks who have been targeted with these ridiculous felony littering charges.

      APD as an organization and each individual officer who participated in these actions are responsible for their behavior. If you’re a cop and you don’t want the blame for this, you should quit your job or at least refuse to enforce this nonsense.

  2. Gordon 1820

    Any chance that residents who are negatively affected by encampments can be included in this conversation? Any chance that folks should get some help with their drug habits so they can rejoin society? It is unfortunate that APD gets sent out as the ‘bad guys’, but who else are you going to send out? Who else gets to clean up all the abandoned tents and encampments when a person just decides to move on to the next clean spot? Any chance that the environment can be considered in this conversation? Affected wildlife? If there are laws and ordinances on the books, it is encumbent upon law enforcement to do their jobs. As an AHOPE outreach person, what exactly do you do to help people get back to a normal life? A cup of coffee, a toilet break, narcan and needles supplies and then they need to get off your property. Any chance the 40 years old black adjacent church to AHOPE can operate, no, they had to sell out and move as their parishioners couldnt get access to their own church. Any chance that Jan Davis Tire can NOT have their windows broken and everything that is not bolted down stolen so support someones drug habits? Any possiblity that regular folks can actually walk their dog in a park, take their kid to the swing, have a picnic, safely throw a ball? Or is green space just for sleeping and camping and making a mess. Just need some clarifcation here Pip.

    • indy499

      Bingo. Only zealots like Pip think public space = exclusive space for homeless

    • sinkhole

      Could you elaborate on why you think the quality of life issues you listed should take priority over the people who are suffering, dying, and facing criminalization as a result of the way the city and the police department have chosen to handle this crisis?

      I don’t really understand why dog walking, picnics, or windows would be a consideration when people are dying from exposure and preventable overdoses. It seems like it should be a priority to provide at least a minimum promise of basic human needs to people before swingsets are an issue.

    • Jt

      Exactly. She seems to like imagining herself and the homeless as victims with no accountability for their actions. Tons of junk were left behind by this “picnic”. Taxpayers aren’t your whipping boy, Pip.

  3. Local Grandad

    Local data extensively reported upon has shown camps to be hot spots not just for litter created by this writer, but physical violence, sexual violence, substance abuse and even murder. Human compassion for both our housed and unhoused requires us to find and fund better solutions. Case after case among US cities demonstrates that legalizing and supporting camps only exascerbates this concentration of crime making public space ultimately unsafe and unusable. Lastly, the writer’s vilification of law enforcement and public safety is out of place and detrimental to moving this community issue forward.

    • sinkhole

      Crime data is often misleading. I recommend looking up the piece “Analysis: APD Blames Nearly All Downtown Crime on Camps to Justify Sweeps” that Asheville Free Press published in 2022. It shows that APD used misleading data to justify their sweeps of camps. Based on their own data, nearly all of downtown and RAD would fall into their “around encampments” area.

      APD has done a lot to demonize the houseless population as well as the activists supporting them in order to justify their sweeps and heavy-handed repression–for that reason, vilification of law enforcement is fully justified here.

  4. rwd

    Well I am not going to jump into the cesspool…but I’ll wade into the water to explore your identifying issue…the issue of public space. You describe an event, yeah that is a warm and fuzzy description of what took place around that time. But lets bring back the conversation of the public space. I’ll bet the intentions of the City Leaders all those years ago when Aston Park was created in 1898 was to explore the benefit of a park or open space that was close or within a residential area. I can imagine discussions around the ideas of a place that would allow neighbors to catch up with each other, or allow downtown workers and residents a place to connect with nature, or allow children to develop healthy habits and socialization skills. It was called a park and not a camp ground. So the thought of what our City Leaders viewed as “public” is the question. Did they hold the view that public was the residents of the City of Asheville and/or those visiting the city or did those views include vagrants. My money is on the thought they were not considering vagrants as part of the public they defined. Back in the 1990’s Aston Park was best known for drunks, druggies, and trash…this was from an article in the Mountain Xpress…you can look it up in the archives to read it yourself…like I said I’m not going to jump into the cesspool !!

  5. Peter Thorwarth

    FYI, the city of Bend OR is doing this…” providing commonsense support to camps in the form of things like trash service, bathrooms and basic dignity” and it seems to be working well.

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