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.