By Laura Browne
While many city ordinances largely affect the homeless community in Buncombe County, experts say problems with over-policing individuals experiencing homelessness are improving, though progress still needs to be made.
“I think we have come a long way. I think we’re in a relatively good place and I think we’re really headed in a good direction. Absolutely that’s not perfect and not uniform across the board,” said Emily Ball, homeless services systems performance lead for the city of Asheville, later going on to say, “There is a lot of discussion about criminalization of folks who are homeless. So, people who get arrested for things like trespassing because they are walking across the parking lot while looking homeless and in a way that like you might walk across that same parking lot and not be arrested. Certainly there’s opportunity to work on decriminalizing people just trying to survive on the streets. But overall in our community, I think we’re OK.”
Certain laws in place directly impact those experiencing homelessness that housed individuals may not deal with to the same extent.
“What they call public order offenses that folks get cited and arrested for — public urination, camping, trespassing, those sorts of things. It’s like you and I have a place to go to the bathroom, you and I have a place where we can get indoors and call home every night,” Said Brian Huskey, community development analyst for the city of Asheville.
Several ordinances affecting the daily lives of homeless people can be found in chapters 11 and 12 of the city of Asheville’s code of ordinances which can result in a fine or an arrest. One major ordinance is the illegalization of street or median strip solicitation.
“It shall be unlawful for any person to stand, sit or loiter in any street or highway, including the shoulders or median strip but excluding sidewalks, and to stop or attempt to stop any vehicle for the purpose of soliciting or accepting contributions from the occupants of any vehicle or for the purpose of distributing merchandise to the occupants of any vehicle,” according to section 11-14 of the city ordinances.
Any solicitation not occurring on sidewalks can result in a class 3 misdemeanor and a maximum fine of $500.
According to section 11-16 of the city ordinances, sleeping on public property is additionally a misdemeanor if the individual found sleeping blocked any kind of foot or vehicular traffic. According to Eleanor Ashton, Homeward Bound’s senior resource development director, lack of sleep can lead to mental health issues for individuals in the homeless community.
“When you’re homeless and you’re sleeping on a bench and a cop moves you off, and so then you go somewhere and and try to sleep and then people want you off their property. And so you don’t get enough sleep for the most part, and so that can also cause delusions and emotional issues,” Ashton said.
Additionally, one can receive a misdemeanor for loitering if they refuse to move when instructed by a police officer.
According to Ball, who formerly worked at Homeward Bound, the Asheville Police Department, community members and nonprofits serving the homeless community have worked together to improve problems related to over-policing individuals experiencing homelessness.
I would say in the past decade, we have come a really long way on that front locally,” Ball said. “When I started at Homeward Bound, the police department had a real kind of slash and burn approach to people who were camping in places they weren’t supposed to be camping. And, just a pretty adversarial relationship. And I think all parties involved have done a good job trying to change that.”
Additionally, Ball said that local non-profit organizations often partner with the police to educate them on de-escalation and how best to deal with any members of the homeless community
“So, there are a number of police officers who are really wonderful with folks who are homeless, who really are, you know, kind and compassionate and do a good job. Deescalating situations are responsive and helpful ways like trying to be constructive with their engagement instead of just throwing people in handcuffs. I think service providers like Homeward Bound and other agencies have done a good job of building relationships with APD and trying to do some education with them.”
According to Kate Caton, the outreach program manager at Homeward Bound WNC, individuals experiencing homelessness frequently deal with mental health and substance abuse disorders and need special support. Ball said the new police chief of the Asheville Police Department is working to improve responses when dealing with mentally ill individuals.
“There are multiple ways that police officers get kind of targeted information about things like mental illness and how to work with people who are homeless in general and in crisis, Ball said. “So I feel like every individual will have an individual experience, but the collective I think is pretty positive at this point in time. Um, we also have a relatively new police chief in town who is working on a lot of changes in APD. And one of the things he’s looking at is a homeless outreach team, um, so that he would have some officers who are really focused on that population again, in a helpful way. One of the things he said in his presentation to city council, um, you know, people, people with mental illness don’t need to be in jail. They need treatment. Like he understands that people have often been criminalized for things that were actually not criminal behaviors, but were, you know, again, people in crisis who need help.”
According to Caton, the key to improving situations for the homeless community on the streets of Asheville is not necessarily to train more police officers to deal with them, but to develop social services and resources for individuals experiencing homelessness.
I think the reality of that situation is that that is still asking a police officer to do a social work job — trying to resource this person, and that’s just not a police officer’s job,” Caton said. So my ideal world — it would be a social worker that could be initially called out to respond to a homeless person. And again, it’s about who has the training and expertise to respond to that situation — that it’s someone who works in homeless services.”