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Asheville homelessness crisis termed ‘solveable’ during panel discussion : Concerns raised about impact on tourism, business
Wednesday, 15 March 2023 21:02
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The problem of increasing homelessness and crime in Asheville was tackled during a discussion by a panel at the  Council of Independent Business Owners’ meeting early March 3 in the Mountain View Room At UNC Asheville’s Sherrill.

The meeting, which drew more than 80 people, was billed by CIBO as covering a recently released report on homelessness, as well as rising crime and “how your business, your property, and your home could be affected. When it affects you…here’s what you need to know....”

The panelists were:

• Asheville Police Captain Mike Lamb, who was asked by CIBO to address: “What can/should you do when a crime or vagrancy occurs on your property? What rights do you have to protect yourself and/or property? Why is crime increasing? What are the solutions?”

• Ben Woody, Asheville assistant city manager and (interim) Planning & Urban Design director (former Development Services manager), who was asked by CIBO to address: “If you have an encampment/camping/vagrancy on or near your property what will the city require of you? What responsibilities does the city have to help?”

• Michael Woods, executive director of the Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, who was asked by CIBO to address: “Will give an overview of the homelessness issue…What works and what doesn’t. Is it true that homeless individuals are being ‘bused’ into Asheville? How are illegal drugs contributing to the problem?”

• John Carroll, business- and property owner and billed by CIBO as a “real estate expert,” who was asked to discuss: “How is the increased crime and related issues affecting property owners and real estate? How will the business climate be affected?”

As the meeting started, CIBO President Buzzy Cannady, who served as the meeting emcee, told a joke about a friend whom he met for lunch recently. Cannady said his friend was bragging — at length — about his “expensive, state-of-the-art hearing aid.”

Finally, in reference to the man’s new hearing aid, Cannady said he quizzed his luncheon guest, “Can I ask what kind it is.”

To his question, the CIBO leader said that his friend promptly replied with a smile, “It’s about 12:15 p.m.!” (The CIBO crowd laughed heartily at Cannady’s tale.)

At that point, a brief Prager University video was screened, providing an overview of dealing with homelessness.

Among the video’s recommendations were:

• Make your city attractive, and the  homeless will beat a path to your door.

• “They (the homeless) operate under a different set of incentives than regular people.”

After the video was shown, Cannady noted, “I hope you could hear that... I couldn’t get the volume up (on the video) very much....”

Alluding to Cannady’s earlier joke, Carroll promptly quipped that “I need a new hearing aid!” triggering yet more laughter from the CIBO attendees, at a mostly otherwise somber meeting.

At that point, the four panelists each were given 10 minutes to introduce themselves and give their addresses to CIBO.

The first speaker, Woods, said, “This (homelessness) is a solvable problem in Asheville. We can solve this problem. 

“I’ve had the pleasure of serving those who are most vulnerable in our community since 2007. It is a frustrating problem for all of us when you see what’s taking place throughout our city.

“At the rescue mission (Western Carolina Rescue Ministries), we have 340 (residents) per night, but currently we (only) have 110 (residents) who are working every day.”

What’s more, Woods said, “We have 35 (residents) who have saved over $12,000, but still cannot find housing. They’re stable and they’re ready to move forward. The problem we have is not that we don’t have enough shelter beds...

“I say that because, all of a sudden, there’s a solution that we need more shelter beds. The problem instead is we have people ready for safe, affordable housing — and it’s not there.”

Woods continued, It’s got to be ‘deeply affordable” — and the only ‘deeply unaffordable’ housing out there, is... unsafe.

“We have low-income, government-subsidized housing, but what we have in Buncombe County is unsafe.

“So when someone is in this subsidized housing… they are just in survival mode.”

At that point, Woods noted, “Panhandling is illegal in North Carolina. It’s illegal in Buncombe County. If we will deal with the panhandlers,” then it will be a major step toward resolving the problem.

“When someone sees someone holding a sign at a street corner, they don’t understand what’s going on. So it’s not just that person standing there saying they’re hungry and have nowhere else to go. Instead, it’s a continuation of crime” involving an organized group that profits from their collections efforts — and “trafficking.”

In ending his address, Woods said, “On Tunnel Road near Lowe’s, I counted 18 shopping carts (being used by those who are homeless) — now that’s costing Lowe’s money.”

The second speaker, APD Captain Mike Lamb began on a light note, quipping that he was — almost —  “mis-introduced by Buzzy (the meeting emcee) as the ‘chief.’ I think I just got promoted!” (The CIBO audience chuckled at Lamb’s stab at humor.) 

More seriously, Lamb said, “My division is tasked with hearing the community risks... I have two officers and a sergeant, rather than what I’m supposed to have — eight officers and a sergeant

“I’m supposed to have eight school resource officers, but I have just three.”

Then, Lamb praised “Pastor Woods for introducing accountability” to the way he and his agency address homelessness.

He also noted that “a lot of people are not calling the police department — because they think we won’t respond.’

What’s more, Lamb said, “We have a permissive environment within the city...If you see anything concerning criminal behavior, say something.

‘If someone’s trespassing on your property, its important that you’re willing to prosecute.

“You have public property versus private property. On private property (in Asheville), the encampment policy does not apply. We enforce trespassing if (the person complaining is) willing to prosecute.”

Continuing, Lamb said, “Being homeless is not a crime” in Asheville. “It’s important when we get a call, it’s important to know what crime is being committed. And someone’s willing to be a witness and prosecute.

“You have rights within North Carolina to defend your property,” as he noted the two categories — self-defense and property defense.”

As for why crime is increasing in Asheville, Lamb said, “Well, there are several factors. One is permissiveness for crime. When you have large encampments, it creates violent, unpredictable behavior. That, combined with folks with serious addiction problems,” causes problems.

“As far as trespassing problems downtown, if someone posted a sign at their business, only 20 percent have signs out and letters on file authorizing enforcement of trespassing and willing to prosecute. That’s part of the permissive environment for crime. That’s where we focus our efforts right now because of our low staffing.

Right now, there are 16 to 18 officers to work downtown… a few years ago, it was 30 officers.” He said the staff reduction is due to “low staffing.

“We’re lower now (in APD staff) than we were 20 to 25 years ago... And the city has grown tremendously since. It’s the ‘broken windows theory.’”

As for the solutions, Lamb said, “In my view, increase the police staffing...

“It’s not only presence, but it’s also relationship-building. When folks have a problem, they tend to reach out to someone they know and trust. It’s hard to do that when you’re having to rush from call to call. Also, de-escalation takes time. We had a guy on Merrimon Avenue (recently) who took seven officers more than an hour to get him in the patrol car,” Lamb said.

Continuing, Lamb said, “If we (the APD) are doing an ‘operation’ downtown, or in all of these areas, we’re having to pull resources, so it’s often responsible for the lack of officers in other areas of the city.

“The other thing, we have to respond to 9-11 calls rapidly, so we have to ‘pull’ officers for those calls, too.

“Also, we have to have prosecution all the way from arrest to court... We’re working with the district attorney’’s office (run by Buncombe County DA Todd Williams) on increasing prosecutions.

What’s more, Lamb said, “We happen to have needle exchanges” (for drug addicts) around the city....”

After a pause, the police captain asserted, “Those aren’t needle exchanges — they’re needle giveaways.

“We also have officer burnout. Many officers having to work overtime....”

In conclusion, Lamb said that to resolve the current challenges, “It requires all of us working together to make everything safer.”

The third speaker, Assistant City Manager Ben Woody,  said he had been asked (by CIBO officials) “to talk about private-property issues. Pastor (Michael) Woods — I want to thank you for what you do.

“To Captain Lamb, on behalf of City Council, I’d like to thank our police department for what they do. I want to recognize them and tell them ‘thanks...” It’s truly a tough profession,” Woody said.

Woody’s expression of deep gratitude to the APD — on behalf of a council that in the past has been perceived as anti-police — resulted in sustained and enthused applause from the CIBO audience comprised of mostly business-owners.,

Woody then asserted,  “Homelessness is a complex problem. I think it’s community-based. We’ve got to pull it together and do it together. I believe there’s a solution to the problem. 

“I’m familiar with the ‘Houston model’ — and I think that’s a good model… I think production of housing is a real challenge. I’ve always heard there’s enough shelter beds as well…. The old Days Inn on Tunnel Road and the old hotel (the former Ramada Inn) near River Ridge (Shopping Center). So there is some affordable housing for the future.”

In a comment directed to Woods, Woody said, “It’s interesting that you said only about 20 percent of our downtown businesses have a ‘no trespassing’ sign with a letter on record” with the APD.

“If someone is there (trespassing and causing problems), I agree 100 percent with Captain Lamb to ask them to leave. If they don’t leave,” then call for the APD.

Woody then noted, “Ultimately, the property-owner is responsible for managing your property. Keep that baseline in mind. But if you need help/guidance, the city can help guide you to resources. It’s not always easy to navigate the city — I’ll acknowledge that.

“Where it’s challenging is where you have a property that’s vacant. In order to maintain property you have to have the active participation of the property manager.

“What I want to close with is that with your participation as a private property-owner, I think we can manage things,” Woody concluded.

The final speaker on the program was John Carroll, billed by CIBO as a “property owner and real estate expert in Asheville,” who began by noting, “It’s often said that if there’s a problem, it’s got to cost you money. It’s costing you money now.”

Further, Carroll said, “When I have people buying a condominium downtown for a million dollars, I don’t want to come out and see homeless people laying out in the streets.

‘We have to do something about that to protect your property value. This is a problem that’s eventually going to cost you your property value.

“My office is at 1 Pack Square” in what was until recently a posh area of downtown Asheville. Now, however, “I have to keep my door locked in order to keep the homeless people out of my office,” Carroll said.

Interjecting during Carroll’s address, an unidentified woman asked if  “it’s good for me, as a businessperson, to operate a business (in) downtown (Asheville)?”

To that question, Carroll said, “I’ve been here (Asheville) for 50 years. I’ve seen it go from a ‘dead downtown,’ to a ‘vibrant downtown’ to (now) a ‘lawless downtown.’ That’s where we’re at — a lawless downtown. I have to lock my door to keep the homeless out.

“I think some people want to make this a political problem. We’re never going to solve the problem by being in an adversarial situation,

“If you look around Buncombe County today, you’re going to see a lot of new schools. In 1980, when I was chairman of the Buncombe County Board of Education, we were rated the 12th most dilapidated school system in the United States. 

“But now this (homelessness and crime) problem will cost you money when you sell your home.

“I have clients who came here from Portland, Oregon, to try to get away from homelessness,” Carroll said. “ Can you believe that? They say the homeless are now gravitating from the downtown (of Asheville) to the neighborhoods....

“In concluding, my clients who say they want to buy a property — instead of (buying) in the city, they’re buying property in Black Mountain. That (Black Mountain) is what Asheville used to be,” Carroll, CIBO’s past president, said.



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