Asheville advocates, consultants, elected officers discuss sanctuary tenting

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ASHEVILLE — Many of the city’s homeless have been evicted to the outskirts in search of safe camp sites.

Khristie Glenn left the makeshift shelter two weeks ago. On the months-long council housing waitlist, with a partner, Jeffery, a dog and no other options, she found respite at the French Broad River, where her group has pitched their tents.

Amid countless unknowns, the most pressing question is how long the campground will last.

With limited accommodation options available and many of them unaffordable for couples, people with pets, those with addiction problems or without ID or vaccinations, camping may be the only option for some.

Ideally, Glenn said, would be a place where people could camp legally, if only temporarily.

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Cities across the country have explored various models to create legal campgrounds for homeless populations — sometimes referred to as sanctuary camping, it’s also known as designated or managed camping.

In most cases, it requires city-approved, dedicated land for legal camping with access to sanitation, resources, and central services.

Camping on public land is illegal anywhere within the city limits. A newly revised Asheville Police Department policy no longer requires the department to be given seven days’ notice before camps are cleared.

Rather, the new standard operating procedure states that officers only give a 24-hour notice.

Asheville Police Department releases new homelessness policy: only 24 hours in advance before the camps are vacated

Though Asheville has heard calls to explore managed camping from various advocates, city commissions and a sitting council member, Mayor Esther Manheimer said there is currently no appetite for that effort on the council.

“I think it’s almost, to an extent, a contentious issue in Asheville,” she said.

Not only do they have to decide as a community that this is a direction they want to go in, she said, but most cities that purchase managed camping lots authorize a vendor to manage the campground.

Manheimer said she was not aware of any provider of such a service in Asheville.

The city is in the process of appointing a homeless services consultant to create an actionable plan to address homelessness in Asheville. For many, this means easily accessible emergency shelters.

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But some advocates wonder what the city’s vulnerable population should do in the meantime.

“I’ve been saying, ‘What about in the meantime,’ for decades,” said Amy Cantrell, co-director of Beloved Asheville, a nonprofit that provides homeless services and support. “What do we do?”

She said practical solutions such as legal camping, new infrastructure including portable bathrooms and bins, and an end to 24-hour evictions are needed. Without them, the city “just pushes the problem around”.

Not a place for people to go

Jeffery Glenn visits Bear, a dog who is staying with his owner at Trinity Methodist Church in West Asheville on March 31, 2022.

Marcus Law, Homeward Bound’s new director of homelessness services, said while an “action plan” to find housing for all people affected by homelessness is vital, shelters often create a “capacity problem” for places.

He said it poses security, sanitation and other infrastructure issues and puts a tax on the city, police and public works, ultimately a temporary fix.

“It’s not something that can be done in a thoughtful way without social and financial costs,” Law said.

In his previous work as a homeless services coordinator in the city of West Palm Beach, Florida, he saw efforts to allow city-sanctioned camping in a public park to “become a bigger bottom wave of need than we were prepared to handle “.

He hopes the city and other organizations will focus on longer-term solutions, such as B. affordable housing options and Homeward Bound’s continued efforts to create durable supportive housing units in the city.

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Mike DeSario, outreach program manager at Homeward Bound, agreed that the city’s capacity to offer dedicated or managed camping presents a difficult solution.

With the weather warming and Code Purple and other shelters ending, he’s noticed a surge in camps across the city.

While he said the APD and the city had been “polite and respectful” when clearing camps, the rapid relocation of camps had only increased as people were being asked to relocate more frequently.

“There’s still no place for people to go,” DeSario said. It is a stressful experience for campers that can result in loss of equipment, paperwork or disruption in the processes people are involved in finding accommodation.

“It definitely makes things difficult,” he said. But like Manheimer, he didn’t know of anyone who could take on the management of a shelter camp in Asheville and hoped that “out of the box” solutions could be found to reduce the burden on vulnerable people.

Other solutions

In talks about such solutions is Trinity United Methodist Church, which has been exploring strategies similar to camping in protected areas.

Melanie Robertson, a Trinity staffer who helped organize winter shelter there, said the church’s senior pastor, Nancy Dixon Walton, is looking at ways churches and other organizations can use their parking lots to set up temporary tent shelters.

If the city and private owners could work together, she said, it could make a difference for those unable to find housing, a more immediate solution to fill the gap.

“Otherwise people have to go somewhere in the forest away from the resources they need,” Robertson said.

“People forget that. The livelihood of these homeless people depends heavily on the resources around them.”

Councilor Kim Roney, who has supported calls for managed camping in the past, said the city’s current response to homelessness is not working.

It doesn’t meet current COVID-19 guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Roney said, which advises places to allow people who are unprotected or in camps to stay where they are.

Managed campsites or secure dormitories with bathrooms and access to services are being trialled across the country, she said.

“In Asheville, these could provide temporary, humane solutions for our homelessness-affected residents, our neighborhoods and our employees as we move from where we are to our goal of ending homelessness,” Roney said.

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“In the absence of a non-congregational emergency shelter, a temporary managed campground is a quick response to addressing the impending crisis. Extremely affordable housing, alongside eviction protection, should be the ultimate goal to end and prevent homelessness.”

Roney advocated including those solutions in the study being conducted by Asheville’s Homeless Services Advisor, saying the study, along with public engagement, is “opportunities for neighbors to push for a meaningful response that focuses on equitable outcomes.” “.

Cantrell said she doesn’t feel the city council has explored the shelter camp enough to write it off.

“We need to put all the options on the table and figure out what’s going to work here. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and expect things to get better,” she said.

“We have to create the things that we need now.”

Sarah Honosky is a city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News tips? Email [email protected] or message us on Twitter at @slhonosky.