Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:

Question: Is there a way an individual can help pay off school lunch debt for Asheville and Buncombe County students whose parents can’t pay? Is there an organization to contribute to that does that?

My answer: Well, thanks for making me feel even more guilty every time I’m shoveling a chicken salad sandwich down my pie hole at Lorretta’s for lunch.

Real answer: This is a really great question, as more students than you think fall into this category. The good news is a system to help is in place.

“For Asheville City Schools, they can call our School Nutrition Director Melissa Bates if they’d like to make a donation,” Asheville City Schools spokesperson Dillon Huffman said via email. “Her number is 828-350-6110.”

Buncombe County Schools spokesperson Stacia Harris said the county also has a system set up. She offered several avenues to help:

  1. “You can contact your local school’s principal and donate to the unpaid meal balance fund.
  2. You can contact your local school’s cafeteria manager to donate.
  3. You can send a check to the BCS School Nutrition office at Buncombe County Schools, 175 Bingham Road, Asheville, NC 28806 ATTN:  School Nutrition Department, Lisa C. Payne
  4. You may donate money through the BCS Foundation on their web page designating your donated funds to the School Nutrition Program.”

As Huffman noted, “Last year, all students were able to eat for free, so there was no debt.” Policies put in place during the pandemic made lunch free for students.

But this year is different, and the need is significant. For instance, in Asheville City Schools, as of Jan. 5, “the amount of student meal debt is $18,679.56 for 471 students,” Huffman noted.

Harris said county schools, as of Nov. 23, had just under $112,000 in unpaid meal debt.

“We have received donations in the last few days but have not applied them to the debt,” Harris said, noting that should happen soon.

The bottom line is if you can help, you’ll be starting the year off with a much-appreciated good deed.

Question: What is BeLoved Asheville doing to help clean up all the sleeping bags, tents, clothes and general trash the homeless are leaving all over our county and city?  It’s left piled in shopping carts all along the Swannanoa River and Tunnel Road. BeLoved Asheville is in East Asheville, so there’s no way they don’t see it. I have donated numerous items, also, just to find them weeks later with price tags on them at Second Gear. Makes me not want to donate anymore. This tent city/shopping cart waste is appalling.

My answer: As a frequent driver of our local interstates, I’d like to note that the homeless undoubtedly have a lot of company in the littering department from local motorists. For years we’ve had a huge and troubling problem with litter around here, and it ain’t just homeless folks.

Real answer: The Rev. Amy Cantrell with BeLoved Asheville said the organization has definitely been involved in work around cleanups, often engaging folks on the street for help with the work. Often they would have 15 to 40 volunteers helping.

But a larger question of infrastructure comes into play.

“One of the things we pointed out is the reality for people on the street,” Cantrell said. “The garbage and recycling truck comes to my house — the garbage every week, the recycling every two weeks — and they take that stuff off for me. The folks on the street don’t have that infrastructure.”

BeLoved, a nonprofit that assists those in need, including the homeless, tried to create that infrastructure.

“And that worked very well during the pandemic when the camps were allowed to sort of be settled a little more,” Cantrell said. “We had, for example, a camp under the Lexington (Avenue) bridge, and they had a cleaning schedule and rotation. And we had many compliments from neighbors about how well things looked in that block because they were really taking care of that.”

The camps have been controversial, and the city, police and the NCDOT changed their approach to removing them. Instead of several days’ notice, the newer policy requires just one day’s notice to remove a homeless site. 

“So it’s very difficult to create that kind of infrastructure for folks,” Cantrell said. “That’s a big part of it.”

Ponkho Bermejo, a co-director at BeLoved, said a lot of the homeless, as well as volunteers, help with cleaning, but “ultimately, one person does something wrong, and this is the story that is amplified.”

Cantrell added that not all the garbage comes from the homeless people.

“I’ve got to say we found considerable trash that clearly didn’t belong to people in the street, that came from the heavy usage in downtown,” Cantrell said, referring to the Lexington Avenue cleanups. “It’s equal opportunity there. There’s lots of people who are doing that.”

Cantrell also pointed out that the larger systemic problem is lack of housing.

“We zero in constantly on the symptoms of this oppression that people are experiencing, rather than moving toward solutions and what the real causes are that are taking place,” she said.

BeLoved is aware of trash problems in the city.

“We continue to work to try to make our city beautiful,” Cantrell said. “It’s very important to us to care for the community we live in, and that’s a part of our work. We’re very aware of the environment and the climate, and that’s significant. But we also know that there are people without anywhere to lay their heads at night.”

Regarding reselling of camping items, Bermejo and Cantrell acknowledged that may happen.

“Everybody has to survive; that’s a part of it,” Cantrell said, citing inflation and escalating costs for everyone on just about everything.

“We never judge the people who decide to sell or exchange a jacket or a sleeping bag for something they need, because we understand that,” Bermejo said.

Bermejo said if someone is selling camping gear they may need to stay alive, that’s an indication of how desperate they are for money.

“The only difference is if I go to Goodwill or a pawn shop, and I sell whatever belongs to me, nobody is going to care that I’m doing that,” Bermejo said.

Got a question? Send it to John Boyle at  jboyle@avlwatchdog.org or (828) 337-0941.

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1 Comment

  1. Homeless Trouble is a systematic…. People please, after 30 years this is getting ridiculous. Government has no mandate to solve social issues, private individuals, social groups, and faith based organizations do. Keep on giving the county grants to solve the problems and you get what you pay for, another group of well paid committee members, a lot of systemic issue talk, and more deeper in debt than 1929. Oh and a big fat 0 for the homeless.

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