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E. Asheville forum focuses on safety, homeless issues homeless
Thursday, 20 January 2022 19:03
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The alleged terrible leadership from city hall was repreatedly decried during a Jan. 14 meeting of East Asheville residents who live near the Ramada Inn homeless shelter.

Indeed, more than 60 people packed the meeting room at River Ridge’s S&J Cafeteria, which borders the former Ramada Inn, to share their anger and vent their frustration with the city’s homeless initiative staff members over decisions being made from city hall.

The two-hour session began with Doug Horne welcoming everyone.

Horne, who is an investor at Westgate Plaza, also pointed out to the crowd the three city officials  from the homeless initiative staff who were attending the meeting to get a sense of the neighborhoods concerns.The meeting was organized in part by the group East Asheville for Safety and Wellness.

He added that, “at the end of March, the Ramada Inn will not be there with the homeless. The new people, (for-profit developer) Shangri-La, will redo it and rent it as efficiency apartments.”

Further, Horne pointed out, “We’re kind of ‘accountability people’ because ... we’ve got to pay the mortgage.” 

Under a new plan for the shelter, Horne said the residents will be “drug-tested, alcohol-tested, etc., to try to help them, rather than just house them in some hotel... The thing we’re worried about is when the hotel is closed, the homeless camps will refill.”

Horne then thanked Bailey Stockwell, a chief organizer of the forum and an East Asheville neighborhood leader and activist.

As the crowd enthusiastically applauded a smiling Stockwell, Horn added, “We’re trying to get her to run for office, but she won’t....” which prompted calls from meeting attendees that she should — indeed — run for office.

Stockwell then spoke, noting, “We’ve all been through a lot” in East Asheville recently” as a result of problems with crime and trash, and she cited major concerns in the neighborhood “about the homeless being put into the Ramada.”

Neighborhood leaders in East Asheville are “trying to work with everyone —the homeless, city officials ...and up until now, there’s been little effort to come together.

“It’s clear that the Ramada has been mismanaged by Sunrise.... The city didn’t bring in any support services.”

After a pause, Stockwell asserted, “We’ve been told time and time again to call the APD (Asheville Police Department) if there are any problems” around the Ramada. But she noted that the APD is severely understaffed, so police help is slow to arrive.

What’s more, she said, “We know in one week recently there weree five overdoses” at the Ramada. “It’s time to put politics aside and work together to solve this homeless problem.

Next, Capt. Michael Lamb of the APD addressed the forum on the East Asheville Ramada issue from a police perspective, and he began by noting that “we’re supposed to have eight (officers), but unfortunately I have two officers now” to cover the area.

“This has been a learning process. It’s been an evolution over the last couple of years — especially with the camps.

“Homelessness isn’t necessarily the issue. It’s crime and safety issues. It’s important to get (homeless) people out of that addiction” — in whatever form — from which they suffer. 

Lamb also said many folks are not aware of some of the laws on the books. For instance, “Some people (homeless or otherwise) didn’t know there is an ordinance against camping on city property. Or that there’s a law against public urination and defecation.

“Also, there’s no obstructing downtown sidewalks or businesses. The APD is responsible for enforcement of those ordinances.

“We’ll continue to have a connection to resources. Most importantly, you treat everyone with dignity and respect. You never know when you’re just one step away from that. So we had a seven-day notification period in which you had seven days to pack up and leave. That was on city-owned land or DOT (Department of Transporrtation) land, or something like that....”

Also, the APD captain added, “With the evolution of campsites, where safety is the highest priority, we had to look at what are our protocols and are they still working. … The large encampments that were formed created safety issues for people within the camps as well,” as well as for those outside of them.

“My experience — and I’ve been in this (police business) for 24 years — is...” Lamb said, pausing, before adding, “so the number I gave at a (recent city) council meeting recently is” highly likely to be an undercount because “there are people living in fear of reporting a crime (in the encampments) out of fear of retaliation.”

Further, Lamb said, “Unfortunately, we saw two homicides at one (homeless) encampment” recently. 

He then recited a list of crimes recorded at the various homeless camps around Asheville, noting 105 overdoses, 54 robberies and a slew of other criminal behavior. He said that “25 percent of crime throughout the city had been committed within 1,000 feet of all of the encampments in the last two years.”

The APD’s response to try to help the situation is “engagement with campers and activists... We help them in many ways. During Code Purple (periods of extreme cold), we’ll offer rides.... We give them a 24-hour or 48-hour” notice that they have to pack up and leave a camp, or the police will return to remove them, rather than just arresting them immediately for breaking the law.

Lamb added an APD officer might often tell a homeless camper — in a purposely gentle voice — that “We’ve got a Code Purple shelter that will take you. Let us give you a ride there… to some place that’s warm and safe,” such as the shelter.

“Most of the people we’ve met at these camps are” cooperative with the APD, he said.

However, “There are other times when we did have to charge people — and those were activists and anarchists working against the city,” such as in an incident at the city’s Aston Park near downtown recently.

“This group left over thousands of pounds. of trash that (the city’s) ‘parks and rec’ (department) had to clean up.

Lamb noted that violent crimes and property crimes in the Ramada and adjoining River Ridge area have jumped. 

What’s more, the APD captain noted that his numbers are “based only on incident reports,” which likely is a significant undercount of actual criminal activity.

He then explained that“to be able to keep our (APD) response times ‘level,’ instead of the expected delay resulting from the massive officer turnover in the department, which “the chief (David Zack) didn’t want to occur... that’s why we pulled those calls back. So we have been able to keep the response times on violent crimes ... ‘even.’”

A reference was then made to Asheville television station WLOS (News 13), which was filming the meeting, to which an unidentified man in the audience shouted, “I don’t watch WLOS” A few others in the crowd murmered their agreement with him — that they think the station’s reporting is biased against those who challenge the city’s policies.

Continuing, Lamb then praised the Buncombe County district attorney’s office, which has been under fire recently for dismissing up 100 percent of cases in some categories. Specifically, Lamb noted that, recently, “We had a group of activists go into Aston Park (and cause tremendous problems)  — and the DA’s office found them guilty.” 

Many in the audience cheered and applauded the news, given that they believed that a conviction by the DA’s office — rather than the usual case dismissal — ranks as a victory.

At that point, Lamb asserted, “Unfortunately, we’re at the highest number officers lost now (at least in recent APD history)  — we’re at a 42 percent reduction in staffing, unforunately.”

The revelation of the APD’s staffing crisis reaching a new low point triggered audible groans from more than a few in attendance, who had expressed concerns about the city being out-of-control with its crime and homeless problems.

Yet, Lamb also noted that there are recruits joinning the APD, and some who resigned have decided to return and “we’ve got an extra academy of 10 officers, thanks to A-B Tech.”

However, an unidentified man complained to Lamb about illegal panhandling and asked about what was being done about that. And before Lamb could answer, the man added that — perhaps — it is good news that there are new recruits who will be joining the APD, but that they will be “green” and inexperienced in police matters, and it will be a long time before the city police force recovers its previous capability with a full force of seasoned officers.

Property-owner Chris Peterson then complained about “rioters tearing out the windows” of his downtown buildings during the riots of 2020.

Lamb reiterated that the APD  “is supposed to be 238 (officers). So we’ve had over 100 resignations” in the past two years. “We have 84 officers unavailable,” as of Jan. 14, although “our official numbers are 57” officers unavailable. 

Chad Nesbitt, reporting for his website Skyline News, said that “someone in law enforcement actually shot that video for us (Skyline News)… They didn’t even know how they (the homeless residents) got to the Ramada... Is there any kind of law about bringing people from other states or cities to the City of Asheville to stay at a homeless place — and do we know who they are and where they’re from?”

Lamb replied, evenly, “Some people said they’d come from Wilmington because they heard they can get (better) services here (in Asheville). We’re trying to ‘educate’ people, but coming” to Asheville from another city or state is not illegal, to his knowledge. “I don’t know of any laws. We’ve got people coming here from Charlotte....”

At that point, Lamb triggered some outspoken disagreement from some members of the gathering when he asserted firmly, “The Asheville City Council has been supportive of the APD.”

As various meeting attendees interjected their disagreement with Lamb’s praise of council, one unidentified man received applause when he countered Lamb by asking, “Why’d the APD lose so many officers” if council was supportive of the police force? Further, the man went so far as to say — as some at the gathering cheered—  that council’s lack of support of the APD over the past two years is the major reason for the unit’s current staffing crisis.”

An unidentified woman said to Lamb, “You know, darling ... I don’t believe them or trust them (Asheville’s homeless residents). Why don’t you send them back to Charlotte? I think what you need to do is put them on a bus and send them back. The gross overage they’re giving these people for the services” they are receiving is extremely expensive and unfair to the taxpayers.

She added, “When I moved here in 1982, it (Asheville) was called ‘the Land of the Sky.” But at her shop, “a bride came in to say, “I’m here in ‘Trashville’ to get my gown!”

Another unidentified woman said, “These guys (homeless lawbreakers) who are being arrested — they all have criminal records. I think something that is the ‘elephant in the room’ is the drug business. Throwing trash? No problem. ‘Do whatever it takes to get drugs.’

An unidentified man said to Lamb that it is “very alarming that your (APD) staffing is down 42 percent.”

He then asked the APD captain the following rhetorical question that several forum attendees noted — pointedly  and with enthusiasm — to a Daily Planet reporter afterward.

“Are city residents better off today than they were two years ago? I just want you to think about it....”

In closing his APD presentation, Lamb said, “So it’s important that we lock up these violent offenders.”

For the final 45 minutes of the meeting, attendees were given the opportuity to speak for three minutes each, expressing their views and concerns.

Following were the speakers and highlights of their comments:

• Judith Kauffman — “I’ve been a resident at River Ridge apartment complex for several years… It’s very near the Ramada. I’m here today to urge the City of Asheville to clean up around the Ramada. Before the city moved over 100 people into the Ramada, it was a peaceful neighborhood. Though the city has sold the rights over the Ramada to others, they’re still responsible to clean it up and I’ve seen no sign of them having done that. Lack of planning and oversight have resulted in degredation, leaving us to live in a cesspool of crime and death.”

• Barbara Melton — “I’ve been a neighborhood acrtivist for over 39 years, including in Haw Creek. We worked with the city on this Ramada (situation) and we kept asking questions… How are you going to fund it? I want to speak on what’s going on at Haw Creek, as a neighborhood near the Ramada. .. There was so much feces and urine in the memorial garden (recently) that we could not use it till we had someone come in to clean it up. This is serious business. Folks, we want to work with the city, county — anyone, but we want a seat at the table ... and transparency.”

•Sara Disher Ratliff — The Oakley native began her address by noting that she is running for the Reynolds seat on the Buncombe County School Board  “It feels like we’re moving backward. I haven’t seen anything that talks about the proximity to the school (to the Ramada). We had a situation (recently) where someone started up a bus for the schoolchildren. The homeless person ran off, but he left a backpack full of drugs and needles… I understand the concept of pride of ownership. We take pride in what we own. .. These people need long-term placement help.”

• A woman named Sybil noted she has been a resident of River Ridge for nine years and “wanted to give a word of thanks to Mr. Hooker, the owner of the property (at River Ridge). It must be hard to get tenants (now), as the value has gone down…. I walk the stairs every day. It was clean. It was not the most opulent neighborhood, but it was clean. Then, we had the Ramada situation and things began to go down from the debris left by these drug and homeless people. Things happened and it got worse. Before the fence, which has helped, one time I asked what’s going on, and the police officer said, ‘It’s just another drug bust!’ You have a lack of police officers now. We need more police officers to patrol the situation.” She also said she was listening recently to international news “on the BBC ... and there was a reference to what was happening at little Asheville — at the Ramada. Do we need that kind of publicity?”

• Steve Cutter — Noting he has been “a five-year resident of River Ridge… What has brought us to this point? You know Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in two minutes… In spite of what you (city officials) say, so far in the past, we haven’t seen it happen… But up to now, we’re not getting information. What  are we going to do? I hear all of these concerns. But the plan to go forward doesn’t seem to be the kind of open plan where the things to be done are not going to get a lot of input before they’re done. .. What it has done is brought all of us people together here. We found out our City Council and city manager (Debra Williams) don’t have the power we think they have. We need a chance to get together and talk.”

• Chris Peterson — “You’ve got a 70-year corrupt ruling party running the county and city — and what do you do? You keep voting them in. Don’t let people these (homeless) people come (to Asheville). We’ve let these people (progressive Democrats) run this city for 70 years. We need to clean house and get rid of them. You’ve raised taxes for six years. I’m praying to God that the poor people will wake up and realize this party is corrupt and vote them out. Let’s get rid of this bunch and clean it out.”

• Helen Hyatt — from South French Broad neighborhood adjacent to Aston Park. She said those people who camped there moved to the Ramada… She thanked APD’s Mike Lamb for his help. It’s very unfortunate because those people will not speak up for themselves. She also addressed DA’s office. ‘Mr. District Attorney’ (Todd Williams) nodded off to sleep, at all of the concerns we had….

• Kari Smith — from Oakley said that she “never saw such crime activity and murders ever before in her lifetime. People sleeping on buses leaving needles on buses... The (Asheville) school board said they’d put locks on the buses. But as of this morning, that still hasn’t happened. A number of the addresses (of homeless people) showed 19 Ann Street, which is the AHOPE location (of Homeward Bound WNC). There is no accountability. We need transparency and we’ve been asking for help for months. Why are our needs not being met? We’ve created the group East Asheville for Safety and Wellness. There was a murder committed behind the River Ridge apartments in a homelss camp.” In closing and as general advice, she said, “Always clean up after yourself and leave a place better than you found it”.

• Don Yelton — Began by asking, “How much does that recruiting firm cost” for the APD? “$250,000,” someone replied..To that, Yelton said, “First and foremost, Wilmington had the same problem Asheville ‘had’ —  and we recently got a bus from Wilmington (loaded) with homeless people.. Now we have a county manager (Avril Pinder) from Wilmington. Who’s going to ask her about that” connection? “They say crime’s gone down — doggone right the crime has gone down ... if you’re not investigating” it because of a severe staffing crisis at the APD. “I’m running for county commissoner in District 3. If the people don’t wake up, we’ll lose our freedoms.” In closing, Yelton asserted, “Anything you feed, it will grow. You feed the homless, and word gets out” — and the result is a stampede of the homeless from all over the U.S. to Asheville.Yelton also noted, pointedly, that WLOS “took down its camera as I began speaking” to leave.

• Dr. Clifford O. Feingold, who is running for mayor of Asheville —  “So let’s start with one group, the veterans...Another element is connection via a committee... We need to discover the reason why so many homeless flock to Asheville. What is it ... the climate? Is it that other cities give them a one-way bus ticket to Asheville? Asheville is the second-most-expensive cty to live in North Carolina..We need a ‘strong mayor’ in Asheville. I’m not a politician, so the buck stops with me.”

• City council candidate Alexender Cobb  — began by noting, that from his vantage, “city officials in attendance look bored and are fiddling on their cellphones….” He then said that “one of my favorites (in politics) is (the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who, Cobb noted, said famously in October 1990: that, “to be soft on crime is to betray the law-abiding citizen.” (Some in the audience applauded.) I am running for council because of the issues you hear” at this meeting. “That’s money being spent that we shouldn’t have had to spend to replace cops” as a result of council’s anti-police stance for the last two years. “For those who (say they) are excited … they’re lying to you.With the homelessness, we need to start enforcing our laws. I believe when we start enforcing the laws, a lot of those (homeless) people will leave. The officials are using and abusing them to make money. When I’m elected to City Council, there’s going to be transparancy….

• An unidentfied woman said — “At Beverly Hills (neighborhood), there was a drive-by shooting... Drive-by shootings in Asheville — where are we? When I look at it, the source of it is the needle program. it was touted as a needle exchange program. There’s no ‘exchange’ happening. Nobody on council seems to care. They’re not doing the research. Those ‘116 tent campers’ are not being served in the way you think they should be. They need to be served in a different way. And y’all (city officials) don’t understand it at all. The needle program — what goes into those needles? Drugs. If that’s what you guys are after, … You don’t care about tourism... This pandering to these Antifa children ... We’re going to swing the power (from the progressives) … Cliff and Alex — I’m supporting them.”

• Fagg Nowlan, owner of J&S  — “I am the presidnet of the company…. There’s been more than $1.7 million invested to bring this building back (after major damage from a fire) because I believe in it. J&S — I believe J&S is an icon in this city.” Over the years, it has been peaceful with just  “one attempted robbery since 1984. That’s it.” During our construction, they (the homeless) were stealing stuff faster than we could build the building. We’ve hired 35,000 workers” over the years... Right now, I’ve got 12 people working here, trying to do the same job as” many more during better times. To the neighborhood group, he said, “If we can help, let us know. This is the place to come” to meet and talk.

• Mike Smith — “I am not an Asheville resident. I live in Arden. My wife and I own Fat Cat Billiards on Airport Road. I am from Asheville and grew up here. And this place… something’s going on. We own a restaurant, but it’s also a bar… In the past five months, we’ve had to call the APD. There’s a cartel, gangs, drugs — fentenyl. We’ve had to resusitate a person. I see it every night. We have several security guards. We need police. We are pro-police. Come on down to fat Cat Billiards, to shoot some pool.” He also asked those present to sign his petition for the city to adopt an ordiance that would massively refund and rebuild the APD rapidly.

• Frank Palmiera (who had Frank’s Pizza) — “I’m more of a bouncer than a mattress salesman these days. Thank you, APD, for the job you do. At this point, you can’t have them reach rock bottom on their own. The window is so small they die more often than not. I’d like to see more pressure on City Council. Our state assembly needs to help as well. There’s no one who safe from this opioid  crisis. This is a severe addiction. They’re not just going to be able to bounce back on their own.

• David Knapp —  said he “opened the first Domino’s Pizza store in town years ago. Then, when we traveled, everyone everywhere in the world ... people loved Asheville... Now in the last six months, people all around the world have heard about Asheville — and they say they’d heard about its problems and that ‘now we don’t seem to be able to get along.’ For the police department, someting I’d make you aware of….is what we’ve lost is experienced officers and administrators, versus brand-new eager green officvers. It’s going to take them a few years. Watch the news, when they’re picking on the police, they’ve got a bunch of brand-new employees…. They’re going to need a lot of help.”

• Sandra Kilgore — the lone City Council member (and a Realtor) attending the sessin said “the homeless situation is bad here, but it’s bad all over the nation.” She also emphasized that “there is a difference between being homeless and drug-addiction… We have to make people accountable. We have to make better programs... As for what’s been said about City Council, of course we are supportive of the police. We’re just trying to make sure we get the officers trained. Please don’t put us all in one bucket. I see what’s happening — it’s horrific. We’ve never had a break-in” on her street. “Well, we had a homeless camp down the street and within a week, my house was broken into. We are concerned.”

• Denise Knapp — “What y’’all are supporting now are the freeloaders. It’s a done deal for 50 years. Shangri-La has bought the building for $9.6 million, so what’s going to happen to the property-owners around here?” At that point, Don Yelton interjected, “Someone got a kickback, folks!” Continuing, Knapp said, “There’s nothing we can do about it. What kind of protection are you going to give me and my girls against these men doing gross things out back? They just don’t have enough police.”

Besides Kilgore from Asheville City Council, Al Whitesides, a member of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, also attended, although he did not speak.

In winding up the meeting she organized, Bailey Stockwell, said, “We appreciate all of you showing up.”

Then Pratik Bhakta, who is running for a congressional seat in the NC 113th District, said, “Seems like we’re taking” a financial hit, given that, “at the end of the day, most of the people here are paying property taxes... Many of the homeless choose that lifestyle, but we’re the ones funding the city government” to support the homeless’ lifestyle. “When are we going to” turn the tables on the city’s leaders on spending tons of money on the problem, which only gets worse? he asked, rhetorically. 

At the end of the two-hour session, one of the city officials in attendance addressed the gathering by noting that “there’s a lot that needs to unpacked” from the comments at the gathering. “There’s lots of energy in this room. I want to continue to meet again.” In turn, the East Asheville meeting leaders thanked the city delegation for attending



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