Fed-up merchants describe the city’s downtown district as nearly lawless. People sleep and do drugs in doorways, barge into businesses yelling, brazenly shoplift, and frighten customers and employees.
Some long-time downtown workers are calling it quits, disgusted with having to clean up human excrement, needles, broken windows, and trash. Aggressive panhandlers and transients, some appearing to be mentally ill, make them fear to walk alone to their cars at night.
They say they call the police, but the response is slow — if the police respond at all.
City officials have stayed mostly quiet — at least publicly.
On social media, out-of-town tourists — the mainstay of Asheville’s local economy — are calling the town “Trashville.” Some say they’ll never return.
Following a surge in break-ins, Asheville Watchdog reporters fanned out across downtown over several days in February to interview more than three dozen business owners, employees, and residents. Many expressed sympathy and compassion for the people experiencing homelessness who often are at the center of the problems, but nearly all of them said — with mixtures of sorrow and anger — that the city’s downtown district is in decline.
Today, Asheville Watchdog begins Down Town, a series that examines crime and the effects of a diminished police force; the consequences of increased homelessness and devastating drug addictions; the impact on tourism; the response by Asheville’s leaders; and the approaches used successfully in other cities.
Fewer police, more drugs, more homeless
It wasn’t always this way, long-time merchants and residents said. Yes, Asheville has long had problems with homelessness and petty crime, but something has changed profoundly in just the past two years, they said.
Ever since the pivotal year 2020 — pandemic, the George Floyd protests, the closing of the downtown police substation — people living on the streets or in homeless shelters have become much more visible, the police much less so.
Coming Next in Asheville Watchdog’s Down Town series: Asheville’s diminished police force and the city’s crime rate.
Emboldened by the lack of law enforcement, the pervasive use of methamphetamine, and a justice system that returns habitual lawbreakers to the streets time and again, the street people are becoming more aggressive, even confrontational.
“It has definitely saddened me to watch the decline,” said Cali Skye, who works downtown and first started coming to Asheville more than a decade ago. “I recall a time when downtown was rich with legitimate street artists and performers.”
Now, walking to and from her job, “I have many times been exposed to genitals in the street and had to walk through human waste,” Skye said. “What should be a thriving hub for art, tourism and local industry languishes and resembles a lawless wasteland.”
Fed Up with Crime
Carmen Cabrera left in early February as general manager of Mast General Store on Biltmore Avenue after 17 years, in part because of increased shoplifting and aggressive behavior.
“Every morning I’d come to work and there’s people sleeping in that front little alcove,” Cabrera said.
“Everything has gotten worse in the last couple of years,” she said, especially shoplifting.
“In the past, if they knew we were watching, they would just leave, because they knew we were onto them,” she said. “Before I left, if they knew that we were watching, they would do it anyway and just walk straight out the door.”
Sometimes, confrontations got ugly. “If I tried to ask them for my products back, I almost got hit several times — you know, where I’d have to keep distance or keep a fixture between us, because I wasn’t confident that they wouldn’t become more violent,” Cabrera said.
Susan Marie Phipps, a jeweler and owner of Susan Marie Designs on Biltmore Avenue, opted out of her lease and closed her store Dec. 31 after 14 years downtown. Phipps is leaving Asheville altogether and moving to Anderson, South Carolina.
“I’m just over the crime, the transients, the drugs,” she said. “I’ve had human feces outside my store. I’ve had blood, God, you name it, adult diapers, food.”
Sometimes after a full day, Phipps said, “I used to get trapped in my store. I couldn’t get out of my business at night after hours because there’d be people passed out in my entryway.”
A $4,600 metal gate installed with the help of her landlord kept Phipps from having to clear her doorway in the morning.
“My entryway sleeps five guys and three dogs; that’s the most people and animals I’ve had,” she said.
Phipps said she feared walking to and from her car in a hotel parking garage in the next block. “I had started to carry pepper spray and tear gas.”
It became a regular occurrence, Phipps said, to see “these poor people walk around in circles, walk back and forth, talking to themselves, and they’re just all drugged up.” She said she observed nudity, weapons, and people passed out on sidewalks.
Uptick in Crimes, ‘Aggressive Panhandling’
Downtown Asheville, like many cities in America, has long contended with homelessness, panhandling, drugs, and common crimes like shoplifting.
“I would say that in the last probably year and a half, the number of concerns … has gone up significantly,” said Meghan Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association that advocates on behalf of businesses and residents for the vitality of downtown.
“It’s break-ins, vandalism, assaults, things like employees feeling unsafe walking to their cars at night,” said Rogers, who is leaving for another job at the end of February. “I think it’s an overlap between mental health, substance use, and people experiencing homelessness.”
Erratic behavior has intensified with “people screaming obscenities or derogatory remarks at passersby” and “aggressive panhandling,” Rogers said.
“I don’t mean someone saying, ‘Hey, do you have a dollar?’ ” Rogers said. “I mean people really getting aggressive with kind of touching, following people, getting a little close.”
Employees and business owners routinely call 911 to report disturbances and crime. One owner estimated he had made more than 50 calls in the past year.
The 9-1-1 call log for the Shell gas station and convenience store on Merrimon Avenue, just north of the I-240 bridge at an intersection known for panhandling and homeless encampments, contains 994 calls in a little over two years.
“Two months ago, we had someone overdose in the bathroom,” said one employee, Malina Parris. “We’ve had people throw water bottles at us. We’ve had people hit us. One day, I had a guy chase me with a knife.”
An employee’s car was stolen when a woman jumped in and drove off, Parris said. A customer was buying gas when “this dude came up and started beating his car with a crowbar.”
Problems increased dramatically since the pandemic, said store manager Brandon Belcher.
Of 80 stores in the region, “we’re allowed the most labor,” Belcher said. “I have to have at least three people on to keep it safe.”
Little Public Discussion
Complaints about safety and cleanliness have poured into the city from downtown businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, visitors and local taxpayers for months and even years.
Yet the state of downtown, the hub of a thriving tourism industry whose health is important to merchants and residents across the city, has been glaringly absent from the public dialogue, many merchants said.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said downtown “has been a topic of a great deal of communication” and she shares concerns about safety and cleanliness.
“I’ve been in Asheville since 1988,” said Manheimer, an attorney who works downtown. “I know that it has ebbed and flowed over the years, and I would definitely say it has been in better shape prior to now. And we’re working hard to try to get it back.”
Some business owners and workers said they believed city leaders were avoiding public attention on the problems for fear of scaring people away from downtown and harming businesses even more.
“I think that there is this sort of unfounded fear that by speaking out about the downtown situation, they would become somehow less progressive,” said Skye, the downtown worker. “As far as I’m concerned, holding public servants accountable and encouraging third-party/civilian oversight in government institutions is as progressive as it gets.”
Tourism and business leaders have been trying to get the city’s attention. Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, which has more than 1,650 members, said the condition of downtown is “all I’ve been talking about” in recent months.
While Asheville is a tourist town, Cramer said “this is not a visitor issue… This is an issue for people who work downtown, for people who want to do business downtown.”
Cramer said she talks to chamber executives across the country, “and they’re facing similar situations.”
Victoria “Vic” Isley, president and CEO of Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the recent spate of break-ins and thefts “are really disturbing and concerning. . . and it’s not just downtown. It’s also West Asheville, the River Arts District and East Asheville.”
Last week, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority and the Chamber announced they had invited the City Council to a meeting “with a cross-section of businesses and people that have been affected by crime in our community.” The meeting, open to the public, will be March 1 at 1 p.m. at Rhubarb, 7 S.W. Pack Square Park.
If city leaders “cannot successfully manage these issues,” Skye said, “the so-called downtown revival will have been a flash in the pan for Asheville.”
Police Hard to Find
Businesses interviewed by Asheville Watchdog overwhelmingly pointed to a decline in police presence as a major factor in the perception of downtown as less safe.
The Asheville Police Department is down 40 percent of its force between vacancies and officers on leave. The department, like others across the country, saw an exodus of cops that started with the 2020 protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis policemen.
As its resources shrank, the Asheville Police Department closed its downtown substation on Haywood Street in December 2020. And the number of officers patrolling downtown each shift dropped from eight to two, who also are responsible for policing Biltmore Village.
“We never see a police officer — only meter readers,” said Elissa Connor, manager of the Kingdom Harvest Wellness Dispensary and More on College Street.
Connor said the store moved from Biltmore Avenue in November in search of “more foot traffic” but said downtown has become “significantly worse” in the past two years.
‘Don’t bother calling the cops’
Jonathan Mariano, owner of We’re Off to See the Wizard on Haywood Street, has witnessed drug overdoses and robberies. He recently arrived to find his door lock jammed from an apparent break-in attempt.
“Don’t bother calling the cops … I gave up,” Mariano said. “If people don’t wake up soon, this is not going to be the city that people think it is.”
Rose Garfinkle works and lives downtown. She said she has no regrets about buying a downtown condo in 2006 and loves Asheville’s “food, music and mountains.”
But, Garfinkle said, “We really need beat cops, police on bicycles. The lack of a police presence is noticeable. Things have taken a turn in the last five years.”
Tourists have noticed, too. One visitor who stayed in a downtown condo wrote a review in 2021 praising the rental but said “the city felt unsafe.”
“Our three-night stay in the city had more than six very unpleasant experiences with homeless people tripping out on drugs, defecating on the grounds of the church across from the condo and overall aggression from them. I was more than a little surprised to spend that much time in a city that size without ever seeing a police officer.”
A Panic Button and Mace
With a diminished police force, downtown businesses have often been left to fend for themselves.
Margaret Lancaster reported a man and a woman who stole a $475 lamp from her store, Dog and Pony Show on Haywood Street, in November.
“I did call the police,” she said. “They said they would send somebody over, and it never happened.”
One of the thieves later returned to retrieve a cell phone she left behind, Lancaster said. “I’m on the phone with the police officer when she goes up to my shelf and grabs a set of expensive vases and literally looks at me and says, ‘And don’t you touch me or I’ll drop these,’ and just walked out the door with them.”
Lancaster said she recently arrived to find in her entryway books that had been set on fire and extinguished with urine.
“I’ve had people sleeping in the alcove when I come in in the morning and I had to wake them up,” she said. “My heart goes out, but the fire thing really kind of scared me.”
“I’m here for the long haul,” Lancaster said. “I love my business, but I will say I have put in a panic button for my employees, and we have mace underneath the counter.”
Safety in Numbers
The law firm of McGuire Wood & Bissette on Patton Avenue has installed motion detectors and cameras inside and outside.
“We had little to no security in our building five years ago,” said Andrew Atherton, an attorney in the firm. “We’ve added locks and codes to all the internal doors … We’ve had a few incidents of people coming into our building and stairwells and having to kind of get them out on our own.”
The firm has had two break-ins in the past year and a half, windows broken and graffiti. The lawyers switched parking lots for employees about two years ago because of transients and “needles in the parking lot consistently,” Atherton said.
“That’s become a bigger struggle for us, just feeling like our staff is safe in the early morning hours or late afternoon,” he said. Employees have reported “folks sort of approaching them.”
“We had a client that had a knife drawn on them walking just from our building to the parking lot, which is about a block,” he said.
The law firm now recommends that staff pair up when they leave, and adopted a policy for lawyers staying after hours to escort employees out. “We don’t want our staff members leaving the building by themselves,” Atherton said.
McGuire Wood & Bissette has been downtown since 1894, and Atherton came to Asheville in 2005. “We’ve had folks that I would say are homeless around town since I’ve been in Asheville, but the folks that are downtown lately seem to have more mental illness,” he said.
“Right across the street from our building, somebody was defecating in the mulch,” he said. “Our managing partner walked out the other night and two people were naked and maybe engaged in sexual intercourse.”
‘Completely On Our Own’
The store managers at Urban Outfitters at Haywood and College streets said they routinely clear out people sleeping in the large entryway and clean up what’s left behind: needles, human waste and food containers.
“There was a man shooting up on the sidewalk,” said Stacie Ziele, store manager. Employees have been documenting their encounters, and Ziele shared some with Asheville Watchdog.
- “Person with mental illness came in repeatedly (upwards of 20 times a day), would walk in, put product on and dance around. Escalated to” yelling.
- A known shoplifter tried to enter the store daily and once followed a manager “while walking to car.”
- One person attempting to shoplift took a bottle of nail polish, “painted all over fitting room…and started vomiting in store.’’
- Another urinated in front of the cash registers.
- “Unhoused person defecated in front of store multiple times; Management caught person doing so on one occasion.”
- “Unhoused persons camping in front of store constantly.” One became aggressive, kicked belongings and “stood in front of management with a weapon that looked like a table leg.”
- “Trash constantly left in front of business, including bodily waste-covered blankets, needles and food/assorted items.”
With no one to call, the store managers remove disruptive people.
“We’re not mental health workers,” Ziele said. Employees are compiling the log of their experiences for the corporate owner to justify a need for private security.
“I hate that that’s where we have to go — a security guard standing at the door of a clothing store,” Ziele said.
Sophia Deck, manager at Madame Clutterbuckets Neurodiverse Universe on Battery Park Avenue, said a fellow merchant “looks out for us.” The merchant, she said, carries a gun.
“There’s a lot of people sleeping in front of the store,” Deck said. “As business owners we are completely on our own. We have no recourse except to be vigilant.”
Employees described being harassed on the job and while going to and from work. One said she dims the lights during closing time so people can’t see in her store. Another described running to her car, jumping in and locking the door after being followed by an aggressive panhandler.
Ten Thousand Villages on College Street ensures the store always has two employees.
“Shoplifting is the worst it has ever been,” said manager Stacy Smith. Above her desk are two photos of known shoplifters. She said she has watched as thieves brazenly stole merchandise and walked out.
“There is nothing we can do about it,” Smith said. Police have “bigger crime” to pursue, but “we’re feeling a little bit helpless,” she said.
Employees have had to clean up human feces outside the entrance, and homeless people congregate on the sidewalk near the store, which is across from Pritchard Park. Smith said customers’ reaction ranges from sympathy to disgust, with some visitors saying they’ll never return to Asheville.
Jeison Bosch, manager of Salsa’s restaurant on Patton Avenue near Pack Square, said some “really crazy people” have become violent and harassed staff. About a month ago, a large window on the side of the restaurant was broken.
“We had to close the business for about four days,” he said, resulting in about $20,000 in lost revenue.
Bosch said staff used to give out food and drinks to people on the streets but stopped because some “drug addicts” became demanding and threatened violence. They now walk waitresses to their cars at night.
Trying to Survive
At the Pepper Palace hot sauce store downtown, Manager Laine Lewis sees both sides of the problem, having experienced homelessness herself. Asheville has a “cognitive dissonance,” she said, between an ever-growing supply of high-end hotels and people who don’t have basic housing.
“There’s a lot of mental health problems and a lot of homeless folks, and they’re all having a really hard time down here,” Lewis said. “I think they’re just doing whatever they need to survive.”
Lewis said she’s had to call the police a couple of times because of disruptive behavior in her shop, calls she said she dreads making. “They need help, they don’t need to be penalized,” she said.
Lewis said she’s never been “houseless” but was homeless for three years. She now works 40 hours a week but still lives paycheck to paycheck.
“Being homeless again is like constantly hanging over my head,” Lewis said.
The former bartender said she tries to be kind and compassionate but also keeps a machete close by.
“I don’t know if I would ever actually use a machete on anybody,” Lewis said. “You have to have protection downtown.”
Staff at Claddagh Restaurant & Pub on College Street keep a baseball bat and pepper spray.
“We had a couple of guys who came in here, kicked our door in and (had) machetes and were threatening to rob us,” said Toby Rector, who tends bar at night. “It looked like some kids were on some drugs.”
Walking downtown, Rector said panhandlers have cursed him for refusing to give them a dollar or cigarettes.
“It’s new street people … younger kids,” he said.
Last year, someone broke a window, and another time stole alcohol. He and Cromer said “dine and dash” incidents — customers paying a tab with an invalid credit card or just skipping out — are also up.
Rickey Allen Borrow said he’s been busking in Asheville for eight years and has noticed a shift downtown with more organization by those stealing and committing crimes.
“It’s gotten extraordinarily organized in unsettling ways that I haven’t seen in Asheville before,” Borrow said. “It feels like that these people with criminal intent are communicating with each other who to watch, where to watch them, where they’re going.”
Borrow, who plays guitar and travels the country busking, stays with friends when he’s in Asheville. He said he has not directly felt threatened.
“But some of them will kind of — and I hate to use the expression ‘wing-nut out’ — doing some karate moves and practicing shadowboxing,” he said. “(They’re) in full view of me and yelling and acting hysterical, which has caused me concern. I’ve been seeing it every day.”
Locals Staying Away
Asheville Discount Pharmacy has been on Patton Avenue across from Pritchard Park since 2001. In years past, Nur Edwards, the second-generation owner, said employees developed a rapport with people living on the streets.
“But now I just feel like there’s so many new faces that you’re never actually establishing any kind of relationship,” Edwards said. “And I think the other thing is, just the general increase in drug use leads to more unpredictable behaviors.”
Last summer, a disheveled, shirtless man entered the store and began screaming at the cashier, cursing and gesticulating wildly. Edwards sent a video of the incident to city leaders and said that while she worries about the safety of her employees, she’s not looking to “criminalize homelessness.”
“I feel like when you ask for help, it’s painted so negatively,” she said. “You kind of give up for fear of what’s going to be said against you.”
At a recent meeting, Edwards said, she was incorrectly portrayed as a political conservative “for saying that locals don’t want to go downtown.”
And tourists, she said, are asking if downtown is safe, “and that’s not really something that we used to get.”
Hunt Mallett, owner of Weinhaus on Patton Avenue, said the customer base for his shop, which sells wine and beer and has a small pub, has shifted to mostly tourists. The shop has been downtown since 1977, and Mallett lives above it.
He said he feels relatively safe, but “the locals are not coming downtown nearly as much as they used to.”
Ron Barile, general manager of the Melting Pot Social on Patton Avenue, said staff have encountered disruptive people in the restaurant and discovered blood and needles in a downstairs bathroom.
“Now the bathroom is locked during non-business hours and weekends, where it was open all the time,” Barile said. “Some people locked themselves in there, especially when it was cold. I can understand that. I mean, people are looking for shelter.”
Barile moved from Florida in January and said he’s visited cities including Daytona Beach, Florida; Chicago; New York; and Charleston, South Carolina. Asheville, he said, has the highest concentration of homeless people he’s seen, including around Pritchard Park.
“I visited this area about six months ago, when we were kind of scouting where we were going to move to, and we noticed that right off the bat,” Barile said.
Asked if the restaurant had problems with belligerent or threatening behavior, Barile quickly answered, “Yes.”
“There was a lady the first week I was here that was standing out the front door spraying an aerosol can — not sure what was in it or what she was doing,” Barile said. “But she came into the restaurant and started spraying it in the restaurant, so I had asked her to leave. She turned around, walked out and threw the can back into the restaurant.”
Restaurateur: Downtown ‘Very Unsafe’
Michel Baudouin, the chef-owner of the restaurant Bouchon on Lexington Avenue, wrote to tourism and elected officials in September.
“It is not a rumor, it is true that downtown has become very unsafe,” he wrote. “It is particularly dangerous now for our employees.”
Baudouin said downtown employees had “been robbed at gun and knife point and shot out (sic) with pellet guns. The panhandling is out of control and some of them are very forceful and/or intimidating”
He said he paid for parking for his employees in a lot “that they do not use because they are afraid to walk a half block.”
Video of one incident early on a Saturday showed a man exposing himself to a female worker in the restaurant. “He appears to be pleasuring himself while looking at our building while [the employee] is inside, for a solid couple minutes,” Baudouin wrote.
“Then there was the incident of the houseless couple camping out and having sex on the side patio, leaving us used condoms to clean up,” Baudouin wrote.
An employee’s purse “was stolen off the bar during closing,” and another employee had to clean up after someone urinated in the stairwell to L’ecluse, the venue above Bouchon, he wrote.
“We often have to go ask people outside to leave our guests alone, whether it be on the patio or when they arrive for their reservation,” Baudouin wrote.
He told Asheville Watchdog little has changed since he wrote the email. Two weeks ago, someone broke into the restaurant and stole liquor, Baudouin said.
Asked if city leaders had taken downtown merchants’ concerns seriously, he said, “I’ve not heard a thing from the city.”
[Editor’s note: This story was revised after its initial publication to conform with The Associated Press Stylebook’s guidelines for describing people who are experiencing homelessness.]
Barbara Durr, Gail Meadows, and William Robertson contributed to this report.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email email@example.com. John Boyle has been covering western North Carolina since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.