Deliberate destruction leaves people with nothing

All that was left after NC Department of Transportation bulldozers cleared a community of homeless people’s belongings from an underpass in downtown Asheville.

A few days ago, during the coldest week of the winter so far, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, the NC Department of Transportation bulldozed the belongings of a community of unhoused people that had been set up under a highway overpass in downtown Asheville, NC. Some people had time to gather a few of their things, others did not.

I can’t even begin to imagine how it must feel to be on the streets because our society chooses to not help people in crisis, instead calling them lazy and vilifying them. In comments on news sites about this, people are actually gleeful about fellow human beings being booted out of a place they found community and a tiny measure of safety.

Imagine having lost everything — your shelter, your car, your possessions — and now you’re living in a tent under an overpass, in sub-freezing temperatures. You go to get food or to a government office in search of help and when you come back, everything is gone. Your tent, your sleeping bag, any spare clothes, even the few small things that offered you a connection, however tenuous, to a happier time, all gone.

I wrote an angry letter to the Mayor and City Council members, asking how they could have allowed this to happen. Mayor Esther Manheimer replied with an “I’m sorry this happened,” and a denial that the city knew anything about this.

I had hoped for a little more outrage than that. The statement had no suggestions on how City Council plans to address the problem of increasing numbers of people in poverty.

The mayor can write all the public statements she wants, but until she starts offering — or even asking for — suggestions on how we move forward, there is no evidence of genuine concern on her part. There wasn’t even a promise to replace things that were lost in the city’s statement, although I’ve heard people can contact the city to report lost items. If I were one of those people whose few possessions were bulldozed, though, I likely wouldn’t trust the city to replace them.

Council member Kim Roney also replied to my email with a long list of questions and concerns she has sent to other council members and the DOT Commissioner. I found her reaction to be far more appropriate than the mayor’s. She was genuinely concerned about these fellow human beings.

I want to know why there’s nothing in place to ensure city officials know before any property is destroyed or people displaced within city limits. If such a policy exists and it failed, I want to know why and what’s being done to rectify it. I didn’t get an answer to that concern. We do know that the complaint came in through the Public Safety Department and was sent to the state DOT, and that city police were present when the destruction took place.

I want to know why the city, since it can’t accommodate as many people in shelters because of the COVID pandemic, doesn’t at least make sure people have a place to set up their tent community. As it is, it’s illegal to be homeless here. People can’t stay on public or private property without being harassed or arrested. It would be easy to designate a small piece of city property with trash pickup, portable toilets that are serviced daily, perhaps a water tank truck, some cooking stations and some electrical power that will allow people to plug in cell phones or small heaters. The city also could offer security training to some volunteers because the police should have no presence there.

Please understand that I don’t think a tent community is the answer. This is a tourist town and time and again, city officials have shown that tourism is more of a priority for them than poor people. In fact, the city is about to allow a continuation of the hotel boom, which will bring in more wealthy tourists that residents will serve for poverty wages and inhumane working conditions. Why don’t we require hotel developers to contribute to housing for poor people in a meaningful way? Why can’t they contribute to a fund to buy a couple of old hotels that then can be turned into safe and decent housing for people who have nothing? If you won’t invest in the community, you shouldn’t be allowed to build here.

People deserve the dignity of a place to call home. It’s a basic necessity, and we don’t even view it as a right in this society because we’re too afraid someone will get something they don’t “deserve,’ as though anyone on Earth deserves what happened to those fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters.

Other cities are finding ways to house people. Why won’t we?

I am a follower of the teachings of Christ. I am required to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner and welcome the stranger. But Christianity isn’t the only faith that demands love of each other from its followers. In fact, evert major religion demands the same thing, and even for people with no religious faith, moral standards demand this.

As I told the mayor, there may not be a Biblical Judgment Day, but there will be an election.

BeLoved Asheville is replacing the things people lost — tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes and more. If you can donate, please go to www.belovedasheville.org. We’re all doing our best to keep these people alive right now.

20 more names

Paula, a woman who finally triumphed over addiction before she died in September. She was 42.

Paula, a woman who finally triumphed over addiction before she died in September. She was 42.

These aren’t the names of children; they are the names of people our society didn’t care enough about to save.
Some struggles with mental health issues or addiction, others lost jobs or became ill and then lost their homes.
These 20 names don’t mean much to most people. Only about 100 people attended a memorial service for them this morning.
Whatever you might think, these lives were as precious as yours or mine in the eyes of God, and except for better luck than they had, you or I might have been in their shoes. This year there were 20 names of people who were homeless who died; there were more who were not named.
On this, the shortest day of the year, people gathered in the chapel of First Baptist Church here in Asheville, as we do every year, to honor the lives lost from among our homeless.
I used to cover this service when I was a reporter and I continue to attend each year as a health care advocate and as a person who believes everyone deserves a safe place to sleep at night.
I go because four years ago, when we learned Mike was dying and raced to be with him in Raleigh, another man I never met was dying.
Tommy McMahon had gone to the emergency room the night before with a respiratory infection. He had been there before; the staff knew him. The doctors there gave him antibiotics and an inhaler and discharged him.
But Tommy knew he was too sick to go back out into the cold and wind and he refused to leave. Someone called the police and Tommy was offered the chance to go to jail for the night. He was arrested.
Sometime during the night, Tommy died, and an editor called me in Raleigh to ask who a reporter might interview for a story. As I gave the names and telephone numbers of a few people, I knew my precious son would die surrounded by love, and he did just six weeks later.
Tommy, on the other hand, died alone in a jail cell.
This season always brings Tommy to mind as much as it does a baby born in a stable and placed in a manger. I wonder if anyone loved Tommy, whether he had family and if they had given up on him. That happens a lot with homeless people — they burn through all their family members before they’re turned out onto the street. Did he have a mental illness that should have been treated? Was he addicted to drugs or alcohol and not able to get the help he needed to sober up? Did he become homeless because of an illness or a lost job?
I wonder whether anyone grieved him as I do my son and I grieve for him just in case. I pray for his soul to be at peace. I do that for each of the homeless people who die every year, but especially for Tommy McMahan because he is forever connected to my son in my heart.
Tommy’s death made me understand that we are all connected, that we are responsible for each other. I got to say goodbye to my son; Tommy’s mother didn’t. Both men died because of injustice. They died because no one who could save them cared enough to do so.
This year, as the names of the dead were read, a little about each one of them was shared — at least something about the people that someone knew and could speak about.

  • Fred Blevins, who perfected the sport-coat-over-a-bare-chest look.
  • Paula Jean Gump Chrishawn, a mother of five whose battles with mental illness and addiction caused her to lose all of them because she couldn’t care for them. She loved the color purple, and she finally won her battles. She was one week away from moving into her own apartment when she died in September.
  • Douglas Dillingham
  • Dennis Gillette, an outgoing “gentle giant.”
  • Floyd Hill, an accomplished storyteller with a deep mountain drawl and a veteran.
  • David Isles, a veteran who smiled often.
  • Herman Lee, a veteran known as “Buffalo.”
  • Andrew Marsh, called Sammy, was known for his generosity.
  • Dan Mason, who fancied himself a bodybuilder, even as he became increasingly weakened by illness.
  • Joseph Metcalf, a soft-spoken native of West Asheville.
  • Kenneth Myrick
  • Rebecca Plemmons, a mother who was just rekindling her relationship with her daughter.
  • David Pounders, a kind man who divided his time between his beloved mountains and the coast of Florida.
  • Donna Ray, a woman of kind and gently spirit.
  • Jeff Reynolds, a young man still struggling to navigate the world.
  • Delois K. Smith, a kind and gentle soul with a great sense of humor.
  • Jackie Todd Stipes, a former carnival worker who bragged that he often let the rides go longer than they were supposed to because he enjoys the looks on the children’s faces.
  • Grace Teague, who adored cats.
  • Luzella Whittemore, who was firercely independent.
  • Ivie Ward Yearns, called by his middle name, was a large man and quiet.

If you have time for a prayer today, please include these 20 souls and the people who loved them.

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