Stop the Camp Sweeps!

Stop the Camp Sweeps!

April 19th, 2021

Last week members of our collective wrote an opinion column for the C-T to address the city's ongoing attacks on homeless community members.

City Evictions Won't Solve Homelessness

Asheville Citizen-Times
April 18th, 2021

In the last three months, the City of Asheville has come under fire for evicting several homeless encampments. While camp sweeps are nothing new—whether orchestrated by the city itself or the Department of Transportation—these are some of the largest evictions since sweeps along the French Broad River pushed numerous individuals into the Haywood Road Corridor in 2018.

Evicting camps and traumatizing the occupants has never promoted public health for the homeless or the wider community. But a big difference between 2018 and 2021 is that we are now in the middle of a pandemic. The Center for Disease Control has instructed municipalities to “allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.” City officials who acknowledge this guidance incessantly reference exemptions based on crime and safety concerns, but these exemptions are nowhere to be found in the publicly available CDC guidelines.

Destroying camps destabilizes those who are already in crisis, breaking their connection to community, resources, and service providers. It also increases the risk of viral spread by distributing high risk individuals throughout the community. If the city is worried about crime and safety, it should be providing the camp infrastructure recommended by the CDC, including sanitation services, 24-hour restrooms, and “support services like case management, emergency food programs, syringe service programs, and behavioral health support.”

Whereas encampments previously existed only in isolated parts of our city, those being evicted now are highly visible. For some locals, the DOT-led destruction of a camp below the I-240 bridge evoked the Asheville Police Department’s headline-grabbing assault on a medic station last June. In both cases officials used the pretext of public safety to justify the seizure or destruction of life saving private property (i.e. medic supplies and shelter), and in both cases the city responded to critics with excuses and blame-shifting. The heavy-handed approach that drew accusations of war crimes over the Summer is routine for folks living on the streets.

The city knows that jackboot tactics risk provoking public outrage and has developed a playbook for heading off criticism. First among these tactics is framing evictions as humanitarian actions—literally a “destroy the village in order to save it” spin that would be difficult to sell on its own. In John Boyle’s recent column (“Asheville to clear out two more homeless encampments,” 4/9/2021), city spokesperson Polly McDaniel claims that “Our goal is to give people in these encampments an opportunity to be sheltered safely and with respect,” citing collaboration with Homeward Bound of Western North Carolina. The city clearly wants us to believe that Homeward Bound is a partner in the sweeps and stands ready to move displaced individuals into housing, but that is untrue. Staff at the nonprofit frequently learn about upcoming camp evictions from the media and have little ability to move displaced individuals into stable housing.

In a recent statement to the Citizen-Times, Homeward Bound’s executive director Meredith Switzer expressed concern over the camp sweeps, noting that there is “no sanctioned camping area for [the displaced] to go to.” But Switzer stopped short of criticizing the city’s approach or naming it as a source of harm. This follows a pattern of keeping disagreements internal and allowing the city to hide behind its relationship to the nonprofit—in short, a pattern of complicity. We believe that Homeward Bound has an ethical obligation to publicly oppose evictions and other city actions that undermine the rights and dignity of its constituents.

It is fair to ask if Homeward Bound is in a potentially compromising position as the recipient of significant funding through the city. In a January filing, the nonprofit disclosed $3.6 million in government grants, much of which comes through a Continuum of Care (CoC) program administered by the Community and Economic Development Department. Nevertheless, as the major player in Asheville’s campaign to end homelessness, Homeward Bound has considerable power if they choose to use it.

The City of Asheville has now announced its intention to evict homeless encampments in Aston Park, Martin Luther King Park, Riverbend Park, and on Hill Street. As neighbors and friends to individuals who are living on the streets, we have a responsibility to stop these attacks on their security and humanity. For too long, nonprofits like Homeward Bound have tried staying quiet—now we need them to speak out, reject harmful city policies, and refuse to be used as political cover.