Should Asheville create legal camp for homeless people?

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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Advocates for homeless people in Asheville are moving on new fronts, including discussing the idea of a legal camp for homeless people, as they continue to battle the seeming intractable problem of people living on the streets.

Earlier this week, homeless advocates announced that they were joining a national effort called Homes Not Handcuffs. The Rev. Amy Cantrell, who runs the BeLoved House for the homeless, teamed up with software developers including Patrick Conant from Code for Asheville, to call for an end to actions that criminalize homelessness. Those actions include using criminal charges such as trespassing to continually harass people who have nowhere to go, Cantrell aid. Conant said he’s gathering Asheville Police Department data to see if he can show that the trespassing charge is used much more often against homeless people versus the other citizens to highlight the issue.

Local homeless advocates are also discussing the possibility of establishing a legal camping area in Asheville for homeless people. The idea would be to establish a legal camping area on city property to provide a legal place for people to go while officials work on long-term solutions. Legal camping areas for the homeless is an approach that’s met with controversy in other U.S. cities, including Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco.

The new strategies have emerged as local officials continue to come to grips with the uneven results of Asheville’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, which city officials adopted in 2005. Strategies in that plan, such as a “housing first” approach to finding homes for people considered chronically homeless, didn’t bear fruit. While nonprofits and government entities began working more closely on the issue, they made little progress. A count of homeless people in Asheville earlier this year identified more than 500 people without roofs over their heads, an increase from 2005. Meanwhile, local officials acknowledge improvement in helping homeless veterans secure permanent housing.

The real estate crash and subsequent Great Recession exacerbated the issue. Asheville city officials over the past couple of years have identified an overall affordable housing crisis and are working to address it on all fronts.

Now advocates are going back to the drawing board, and pushing against police action targeting homeless people.

The Asheville Citizen-Times reported earlier this year that one key part of the 2005 plan stated a goal to “measurably reduced burden on courts, police, jail, EMS and emergency rooms.” Conant, the software developer, said at a rally in Pritchard Park earlier this week that a first look at data he’s collected from the city shows no significant decrease in the use of the criminal charge of second-degree trespassing. He said he’s still crunching the numbers to see if he can prove his hypothesis that the charge is used inordinately against homeless people.

Cantrell said the pattern is clear: police are using the charge against homeless people, who then end up in court and the local jail. Those charges also hurt people seeking housing in shelters and federally subsidized housing, she said.

“We’re asking the city officials to stop using trespassing charges against homeless people,” Cantrell said.

A new conversation about creating a legal camp for homeless people has also begun. Cantrell noted a significant shortage in typical sources of transitional housing for people, such as shelters and subsidized housing. Shelters turn away people who have long rap sheets, she said, and there’s a 2,000-person waiting list to get into Asheville Housing Authority housing.

New, more flexible zoning laws could help address the homeless issue, Cantrell told Mountain Xpress earlier this year, and that was an idea debated during last year’s Asheville City Council elections, but there’s been no policy action there yet.

We’ll have to wait and see if the city pursues the idea of a legal camp for homeless people, a temporary solution that could at least begin to address the most pressing needs of some.

Jason Sandford

Jason Sandford is a reporter, writer, blogger and photographer interested in all things Asheville.

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  1. Marc December 5, 2016

    A homeless camp is horrible idea. Trespassing charges should remain. The city needs to hire some game theory specialists if the goal is to reduce homelessness. It can never be eliminated, only mitigated. The homeless population has already been incentivized by the city. Yes, by homeless standards, Asheville is very inviting. Living on the streets should not be encouraged by making it an even more comfortable prospect. The solutions should be designed to discourage the choice of homelessness.

  2. Jason November 21, 2016

    I think we need a centralized camp in Raleigh where we deposit all of our homeless.

    1. Barry Summers November 21, 2016

      I hear Drumpf has people working on that.

    2. Peter Robbins November 21, 2016

      Makes sense. We already have a centralized camp in Raleigh where we deposit the clueless.

      1. Barry Summers November 21, 2016

        You’re funny…

        Speaking of funny, Off-Topic Alert!

        General Atomics, the maker of the Predator surveillance/warfare drone, has come out with a new variant. Designed for the day in the near future when the FAA certifies military drones to operate in civilian US airspace over our heads, they named it, of course:


        OK, the exclamation points were mine. But here’s the GA website:

        Certifiable Predator B

  3. HomelessHereTenYearsAgo November 19, 2016

    I agree that it’s a problem that people who are camping out around Asheville because they’re homeless face trespassing arrests. It would be good if there were legal places for them to camp. I don’t think one large “homeless camp” is a good idea, though. I’m glad that consideration is being given to trying to establish legal camping areas.

  4. Allan Fedor November 18, 2016

    We, too, have lived in San Francisco and in St. Peterburg, FL, both of which have homeless camps. It is true that the camps create an environment that isolates the homeless from being integrated into the community. There are pluses and minuses about the camps. When the homeless congregate into one larger place, there tends to be some violence that follows. On the other hand, the camps tend to at least remove the homeless from the streets and the storefronts. I am not a sociologist. However, one suggestion might be to have several camps quite apart from each other each with a limited amount of space – say for no more than 30 individuals which is about the size of a manageable infantry platoon. Then you just need a homeless platoon leader and four squad leaders to control the camp and the people.

    1. Nate November 18, 2016

      Even if folks are sleeping in an “official” camp, why would they stay there during the day? The majority of the homeless hanging out in downtown Asheville, especially the crowd in and around Pritchard Park, aren’t spending their nights there. They’re going there during the daytime to socialize, panhandle, find food, visit DSS, etc. Even if there’s a nice campsite set aside for them, they’ll still keep going downtown.

    2. Big Al November 18, 2016

      Oh, yeah, “managing” a homeless camp like a military platoon. THAT will go over GREAT in hippie hollar Asheville.

      Asheville has enough bums, “buskers” and panhandlers harassing tourists without INVITING more of them into town by giving them new housing options. I would hope that, as clueless as they already seem to be, the city council will not go completely over the edge by endorsing this foolishness.

  5. lil' baby November 18, 2016

    No. This is why I left San Francisco. Its not fair to everyone else. Also, a legal camp would centralize those individuals as well. They have a better chance of integration with society and getting help if they are spread out. I would never interact and develop relationships with those living in a camp. It would take on a life of its own.


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