BY 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.
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.
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.