Removal of homeless camp under I-240 bridge sparks outrage
ASHEVILLE - The Feb. 1 removal of a homeless encampment under an I-240 bridge during some of the coldest weather of the year has sparked outraged in the community.
BeLoved Asheville, a nonprofit that works with Asheville's vulnerable population, put a statement on the West Asheville Exchange Facebook page describing how they had been working with a homeless man who lived under the bridge to get him a pair of boots. The man lived in a "shelter made out of tent, cardboard, and blankets. He walked on the back of his only pair of shoes because it was a size 10 and he wears a size 12," the organization wrote.
"With winds blowing up to 50 miles an hour and the wind chill set to get down to 7 degrees, we went under the bridge only to find him and his campmates and everything they owned gone," the organization stated. "We were gut-wrenched to learn that the camp under the Lexington Bridge was cleared (Feb. 1) by North Carolina Department of Transportation, with the presence of Asheville Police Department."
This organization pulled no punches in its assessment, using all caps for emphasis: "THIS IS IMMORAL, DEEPLY TROUBLING, and potentially DEADLY to take people's shelter in the winter in the midst of a health crisis."
Wind chills have been in the teens overnight this week, with blustery conditions making air temperatures in the low 20s at night feel even harsher.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation spearheaded removal of the encampment Feb. 1. The DOT's Asheville office released an email statement Feb. 3 about the incident through spokesman David Uchiyama.
"On Feb. 1, N.C. DOT and the Asheville Police Department responded to concerns about a homeless camp under an I 240 bridge," Uchiyama said. "Because the camp was a safety risk due to proximity to the roadway and fires being set under the bridge, N.C. DOT staff needed to respond."
DOT staff reached out to APD, which is standard procedure, "to ask them to join us at the site," Uchiyama said.
"N.C. DOT 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 N.C. DOT did not engage those at the camp experiencing homelessness," Uchiyama said. "APD and their community partners made resources and transportation available to those experiencing homelessness at the site. After those at the site had left, N.C. DOT staff cleaned the remaining debris."
Uchiyama said the DOT has met with city officials and will do so 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, N.C. DOT has paused these types of activities."
City: removal 'did not align' with its practices
The city of Asheville issued a statement Feb. 2 distancing itself from the removal.
"The action did not align with the city of Asheville’s typical practice in handling homeless camps," the statement from spokeswoman Polly McDaniel reads. "The City Manager’s office met with Division 13 North Carolina Department of Transportation staff Feb. 2 to fully understand what occurred and to develop a plan to keep this from happening in this manner in the future."
Prior to removal, the city had received a message about the camp, including a picture, through its online app. The camp, on North Lexington Avenue under the I-240 overpass, is on DOT property, so the city forwarded the complaint to the DOT.
"N.C. DOT staff had also received complaints from other sources about this location and made the decision to remove it, based upon safety concerns," McDaniel said in the city's release. "N.C. DOT staff called Asheville Police Department around noon on Feb. 1 to request assistance in notifying individuals at the camp that the tents would be removed by N.C. DOT. When APD arrived on-scene N.C. DOT staff were already in the process of clearing the site of debris and litter."
The city said the APD "did not initiate or assist with the removal of the camp."
"APD reached out to community partners they typically work with to make sure resources were available for the people being displaced," the city said. "APD officers also offered to transport individuals to overnight facilities."
APD spokeswoman Christina Hallingse said Feb. 3 that their officers were on scene "as advocates, not enforcement."
"When they got there, the officers reached out to those who were displaced and attempted to call Homeward Bound (a nonprofit homeless advocacy organization) several times," Hallingse said. "(The officers) offered services like phone numbers, transportation, and they offered to take them to a shelter or to get a meal. That was APD's role — an attempt to get them services. We knew they were being displaced."
Hallingse said officers repeatedly called a specific Homeward Bound worker tasked with working with homeless people and encampments.
Homeward Bound Executive Director Meredith Switzer said via email, "It appears there was a breakdown in communication.
"Our agency will be reaching out to our community partners to ensure they have accurate and extensive contact information for future concerns," Switzer said. "As always, we want to continue to foster the strong, supportive relationships we have with all of them".
McDaniel noted the city contracted last year for 60 rooms at a local motel "to shelter the most vulnerable unsheltered homeless adults in our community.
"So far, 132 people have been provided shelter since the pandemic began," McDaniel said. "Of those, 25 have found permanent housing through partner agencies, such as Homeward Bound."
Homeward Bound: Camp removals a bad idea
Switzer said Feb. 3 Homeward Bound "certainly would've responded quickly had we known what was going on. And we certainly don’t ever want to see an encampment destroyed."
Asheville's last homelessness count, in 2020, put the number of homeless 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 ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made shelter placements challenging, as operations do not want to expose residents to potentially sick people. But Switzer noted that the city has been under a "Code Purple" designation for many nights in a row because of severe weather, and that means a spot is found for homeless people who want one.
First Congregational United Church of Christ at 20 Oak St., downtown, has been hosting a Code Purple shelter, Switzer noted.
Also, she said Homeward Bound has a city-funded position for homeless outreach, and that worker, Robert Stevenson works on exactly these kinds of situations. He can be reached at 828-768-3435, Switzer said.
"We would always want to be informed of any activity where there's a question about an encampment, and we always want to be part of the solution," Switzer said. "And we don't ever — especially during COVID and with the CDC guidelines — you don’t want to disrupt or damage people’s living spaces during this time."
Homeward Bound works to find the homeless shelter, and it operates the AHOPE day shelter where homeless people can get showers and mail, as well as food.
The city's release said the homeless people were "given the opportunity to remove their belongings before the NCDOT clean up began. It is our understanding that a majority of the individuals did so."
City Manager Debra Campbell will meet again with DOT staff later this week "to continue the conversation on how to improve communications and collaboration to lessen the impact on our most vulnerable population," McDaniel said in the release.
BeLoved is calling for "an immediate moratorium on camp sweeps and destroying people's only shelter during this health crisis and in the winter," according to its statement on WAX. The organization says it's already begun advocacy efforts with the DOT and Asheville City Council.
"We have been searching for hours for our friends under the bridge and have yet to find them," BeLoved said in its statement on WAX. "Please pray for their safety."