For Clarissa Marshall, the final straw was the homeless woman shouting and cursing at her and her daughter as they walked downtown to get ice cream.
Last Tuesday, Marshall, an Asheville native, real estate agent and high school volleyball coach, called in to the Asheville City Council meeting to demand they do something about the city’s homelessness problem.
Marshall, 41, told me afterward it’s heartbreaking what she’s seeing in Asheville. And she wants people to know she’s not cold-hearted about the issue — she regularly donates to Homeward Bound, which works to get homeless folks into housing, and she’s volunteered at Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, which also works with the homeless population.
When I was listening to Marshall, I was struck by her descriptions, as I’ve heard similar stories from other people who live or work downtown. I haven’t been downtown much since March, when the pandemic hit, but I’ve certainly encountered similar scenarios to what Marshall described, including people who clearly seem to be struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.
Over the past year, the homelessness problem has definitely worsened, Marshal told council.
“This morning at 11 a.m., I literally had to step over a homeless person sleeping in the middle of the sidewalk outside the Rankin Garage where I park,” Marshall said. “I also saw a man walking down the street talking to himself and missing the front part of his pants — and that was at 8 a.m.”
Two weeks ago, she continued, she had an elderly couple from Florida come in to her downtown office to sign documents on a house closing.
“They came in at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and they looked visibly shaken upon entry,” Marshall said. “They said they had parked a couple of blocks away, and they were asked for money from three different people on their walk from their parking (space) to my office. They felt so scared walking downtown in Asheville that they didn’t wish to meet at my office in the future.”
She also mentioned an incident she had the week before, while visiting a local restaurant in East Asheville to watch a football game. The restaurant is located near a thrift store where you can leave after-hours donations.
“There was a homeless man sifting through the donations, and he was sporting a 12-inch hunting knife and talking to himself, as I left around 4 p.m.” Marshall said. “I do not feel safe at a spot where I hang out at regularly because of the weapon on display.”
She mentioned a recent news article about a man who was stabbed in the leg Jan. 11 in West Asheville after stopping to help a person lying on the side of the road. The man was lying motionless near Brevard Road by exit 47 on I-40, police said, but when the good Samaritan approached, the man demanded his wallet. When the victim refused, the man stabbed him in the leg, took his wallet and fled into the woods, police said.
Marshall said the most troubling incident to her personally occurred recently when she was walking downtown with her 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.
“While we were walking on College Street by the office around 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, all of a sudden a woman who had blankets and a large duffel bag beside her and appeared to be homeless starting shouting at my daughter, cursing at her, telling her she is the lord and following right behind her,” Marshall said. “My daughter grabbed my arm, as did my son.”
They started walking toward the police station, and the woman stopped following them. But now, Marshall says, her kids are afraid to walk around by themselves downtown.
“And this is not something I would ever think any of my children would feel walking downtown.”
As a native, this decline is “really tough to stomach for me,” Marshall said. “It’s truly gotten out of hand; it really needs to be addressed immediately.”
She mentioned Asheville’s recent history, when as recently as the 1990s, downtown was partly boarded up and very sketchy in certain areas.
“As a native, I too remember when downtown was unsafe,” Marshall said. “There were certain streets you just didn’t walk on. We worked so hard to clean up the downtown in the ‘90s, and we made this a wonderful place for families and tourists.”
But now, she’s worried, because the problem only seems to be getting worse.
Homelessness is changing
I reached out to Michael Woods, executive director of Western Carolina Rescue Ministries, to get his impressions. To be honest, locals have complained about the homeless population, aggressive panhandling and clearly inebriated or mentally ill people roaming the streets for all of the 25 years I’ve been here.
But the situation has taken a troubling turn, Woods said.
“What we’ve experienced over the last 12-18 months — homelessness has actually been changing in Asheville,” Woods said, noting that it’s not that the numbers of the homeless have increased. “There’s not drastically higher numbers of people who are homeless, but what we are seeing is the state of the homeless community has shifted.”
They are seeing more people with severe mental illness, as well as more people using serious drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine. Much of this more recently is the result of “the COVID effect,” Woods said.
Service providers like his organization are doing everything they can to help the homeless population, estimated in Asheville’s last homelessness count at 547 people, which includes those with shelter space. On any given night, between 250-350 people are unsheltered at night, officials have said.
The COVID-19 pandemic means providers can’t provide services to as many people, they have to test folks before offering shelter space, and they’re still providing meals outdoors.
Other organizations too are struggling to provide basic services to homeless people, including simple things like regular showers.
“It all creates a new level of hopelessness in you when you’re homeless,” Woods said. “And then, inside of that, you’re going to see increased drug use, increased violence, increased rebellion.”
Pause for a second and imagine if you lost your job and home because of a medical issue, and suddenly found yourself homeless, forced to eat outdoors in 40-degree rain, with spotty hopes of a regular warm bed or hot showers.
“You could have someone perfectly healthy from a mental health standpoint, but if you have to live in the elements, stay outside, scrounge for resources and you’re not going to be looked at as having value, that’s going to affect their psyche,” Woods said. “None of us are healthy enough to withstand that.”
He also mentioned that the Buncombe County Detention Center last year released a sizable number of inmates to help alleviate potential spread of the virus.
“So people who maybe would’ve been incarcerated with minor crimes are not incarcerated — they’re on the street,” Woods said. “So we’re seeing a higher level of agitation there.”
A national problem
Woods noted that this phenomenon is national, not just an Asheville problem. And he pointed out that all levels of society, not just the homeless population, are dealing with increased anxiety and agitation because of the pandemic, economic stress and the recent political turmoil.
Many people who can afford it turn to alcohol (local liquor sales shot up last year). Homeless folks turn to alcohol, too, but they also seek comfort in drugs they can get on the street.
“Asheville is not any different than any other municipality in the nation,” Woods said. “Nobody was prepared for these outcomes.”
It’s also not strictly up to the city or Buncombe County to address the problem, or the Police Department or local nonprofits, he added. It’s a complex issue tied up in a lack of affordable housing, inadequate mental health services, a dearth of health coverage and more.
“But it is something serious enough for all of us to sit down at the table and say, ‘How do we better serve the people in this community?'” Woods said.
To be clear, Woods was not critical of Marshall, or her bringing up the homeless issue to council. It is a real problem, and it can create uncomfortable or even dangerous situations, he said, stressing that the homeless population mirrors society.
“In my 51 years of life, I’ve never felt like I’ve lived in a time that’s more agitated,” Woods said.
There’s “no question” they see more drug use among the homeless, Woods said, and addiction rates have risen across the country, regardless of housing status. Increased agitation and outlandish behavior come with the stress, with the homeless population and society in general.
“With our Code Purple shelter, we’re collecting weapons every single night,” Woods said, referring to the emergency shelter that opens when the temperature hits freezing or below. “If I were on the street, I would have a weapon, too. It’s the reality of the life we’re living in.”
Some homeless people don’t want to come inside shelters, maybe because of too many rules or maybe because they’re mentally ill and can’t handle a congregate setting, he said. So opening up churches or other facilities, which also come with serious liability issues, isn’t a “silver bullet.”
In short, it’s going to be tough to curb the homelessness issue, and the level of agitation out there.
Marshall has a compassionate heart, and she understands how complex the homelessness issue is. But the bottom line, in her opinion, is it’s simply making Asheville more dangerous.
She wants to see more of a police presence downtown, and more action on behalf of the city.
“As long as the city allows it to continue getting worse, I think it’s going to continue that direction,” she said.
This is the opinion of John Boyle. Contact him at 828-232-5847 or firstname.lastname@example.org