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City officials, community advocates respond after homeless camp cleared away in Asheville

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    ASHEVILLE, North Carolina (WLOS) — On Monday, Feb. 1, Asheville city officials say a homeless camp of about seven to 10 people was cleared out from underneath the Lexington Bridge below I-240 in downtown Asheville by crews with North Carolina’s Department of Transportation (NCDOT).

They say NCDOT had received multiple complaints regarding the camp there. But Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball said Monday’s actions did not reflect city policy.

Ball told News 13 policy dictates that people without housing should be given seven days to pack their belongings and find shelter before being asked to leave city property. She said it appears that group was given a matter of hours to vacate the area.

“My initial reaction was just sadness,” Ball said. “We’ve been working very closely with our homeless population, especially since COVID hit, to make sure they’re protected from COVID and now from the winter elements.”

She said she was shocked to find out the camp was forced to leave in that manner, especially when she had communicated the city’s policies regarding this before with NCDOT officials.

She said NCDOT had contacted the Asheville Police Department (APD) that day, but once they’d arrived on scene, it was too late. She said APD did not assist or initiate the removal of the homeless camp and is well aware of the city’s policies in situations like this.

“The phone call that the Asheville Police Department received was around 12:15 and then they were not able to arrive at the scene until around 1:30,” Ball said. “At that time, activity was happening on the side to remove the encampments and remove debris.”

She said they have had discussions with NCDOT officials since to improve coordination between organizations so that this never happens again.

“We met with officials with DOT yesterday to try to understand more about the breakdown in communication and the fact that it did not align with city policy,” Ball told News 13. “We all agreed that we can and will do better by our population, especially those most vulnerable during these times. We have a follow up meeting we’re working on scheduling for Friday to try to put that into more of a framework of how we move forward with communication.”

News 13 reached out to NCDOT to find out why city policy was not followed. David Uchiyama, a spokesperson for NCDOT, responded Wednesday evening, detailing Monday’s events in an email. Uchiyama says the camp posed a safety risk “due to proximity to the roadway and fires being set under the bridge.”

Uchiyama states in the email that while NCDOT staff waited for APD’s arrival, they cleaned debris from the area, “as requested by the city but NCDOT did not engage those at the camp experiencing homelessness.”

As officials discuss what kind of changes need to be made moving forward, Uchiyama states in the email “NCDOT has paused these types of activities.”

Amy Cantrell, the co-director of BeLoved Asheville, a local nonprofit organization, said she had come to know the people at this camp very well.

“We had a good friend here who was in a size 10 pair of shoes but wears a size 12, so you can imagine his feet were hurting,” Cantrell told News 13. “We had worked to line up a job and get him out of the streets.”

She was shocked when her friends were nowhere to be found Monday afternoon.

“We were reeling, gut wrenched,” Cantrell described. “Unconscionable, cruel, inhumane.”

Assistant City Manager Ball said she reached out to Cantrell to try and follow up and find the people who were displaced. Cantrell said she hasn’t found them yet, but she’ll keep searching.

“This should’ve never happened and anybody standing out in the cold that day should have known this really put people in a life or death situation,” Cantrell said.

She said she also believes the city’s policy needs to be changed.

The CDC discourages clearing encampments for those without homes during the pandemic. In its guidelines online, it says this can cause people to break connections, disperse throughout the community and even further spread COVID-19.

Ball said she plans to talk with city council soon about possibly aligning the city’s homeless eviction policies with the CDC’s policies.

Asheville City Council member Kim Roney said she supports changing city policy. She provided the following statement regarding the removal of the camp:

What happened on Monday night can’t happen again. First, when neighbors take issue with another neighbor’s personal property, temporary shelter has less protections than a vehicle that takes up the same amount of space on the ground. Second, there are humanitarian issues with removing shelter from a fellow human being during subfreezing temperatures and a pandemic without warning. Third, there are moral implications of action that could result in loss of a person’s life. And lastly, science! Because each of these considerations failed us, we need to ensure our local and state guidelines match the Center for Disease Control’s Interim Guidance on Unsheltered Homelessness and Coronavirus Disease. It’s below freezing, we’re in a pandemic, and what happened surely doesn’t reflect our community values or an appropriate response.

Read NCDOT’s full statement to News 13, detailing Monday’s events below:

On February 1, NCDOT and the Asheville Police Department responded to concerns about a homeless camp under an I 240 bridge. Because the camp was a safety risk due to proximity to the roadway and fires being set under the bridge, NCDOT staff needed to respond.
Staff reached out to our partner, the Asheville Police Department, as is our standard procedure, to ask them to join us at the site. NCDOT staff waited at the location for APD to arrive and spent the time cleaning other debris in the area as requested by the city but NCDOT did not engage those at the camp experiencing homelessness.
APD and their community partners made resources and transportation available to those experiencing homelessness at the site. After those at the site had left, NCDOT staff cleaned the remaining debris.
NCDOT has met with our partners from the City of Asheville and will meet with them again soon to see if there are any processes or procedures that can be implemented to improve communication and coordination when these issues arise in the future. In the meantime, NCDOT has paused these types of activities.

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