If anyone has had a front-row seat to the evolution — or devolution — of Asheville’s homelessness problem over the past few decades, it’s Beth Stickle.
“I’ve been downtown for 45 years and I’ve had my shop for 37 years, and I’ve never seen what I’m seeing now,” Stickle said. “And it’s not just homelessness. It’s a mental health issue, it’s a drug issue. It’s multifaceted, and it’s going to need to be approached in many different ways.”
Stickle owns Bloomin’ Art, a gift shop on Haywood Street. She told me the kind of homeless people she encounters now is vastly different from those of previous years and decades.
I’ll note that I’ve known Stickle for a couple of decades now, and she’s not a skittish or alarmist person. She has interacted with homeless people for years, usually in a productive way, but now she admits to feeling unsafe downtown.
“This has taken 37 years to get to this point,” Stickle said. “Nobody owned it — (It went) from five alcoholics we all knew by name, to this. And this is not going to be something that’s going to be solved overnight. It’s just not. It’s heartbreaking to me.”
Joint City-County Meeting
It’s safe to say Stickle, and probably every other business owner downtown, as well as residents and pretty much anybody who comes to the city center, has more than a passing interest in an upcoming homelessness meeting. On Jan. 25, the city of Asheville and Buncombe County will hold a joint meeting to hear the results of a needs assessment report, which will include recommendations to improve the community’s response to homelessness.
The meeting will be from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center. Last year the city, Buncombe, and Dogwood Health Trust collaborated to respond to the increased need surrounding homelessness.
Dogwood funded a consultant “to bring national expertise to the local community to better understand and address the crisis of unsheltered homelessness.”
As the city notes, “Homelessness has increased steadily throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, with a particular increase in the number of people who are unsheltered.”
The city’s “point-in-time” count in 2022 found Asheville had 637 homeless people, including 232 who were unsheltered and 405 who had shelter of some kind. [The 2023 survey will be conducted the afternoon and evening of Jan. 31.]
This is not the first time nor probably the last a consultant has come in to address the city’s struggles with homelessness. And I’ve chided the city for relying on consultants too many times and not getting anything done.
Stickle said she hopes the city and county really step up this time to get a handle on a runaway homelessness problem. She also hopes recommendations include requirements that homeless people use mental health or substance abuse programs — that they become vested in themselves and the community.
“It’s so complicated and we’ve let it get so far out of hand, because in the beginning we thought if we helped just a little bit, everything would work out” Stickle said. “And that’s not what has happened.”
Police Presence Lacking
Some mornings when she goes to open her shop, Stickle said, homeless people sleeping in the entrance won’t move. When she tells them, nicely, that she’s got to open up and asks them to move, she’s greeted with curse words.
Like most business owners downtown, Stickle has a sign in her shop that says camping is not allowed in the doorway, and she’s registered with the Asheville Police to enforce. Except, Stickle said, the police presence downtown has dwindled, and homeless people know that and ignore the signs.
“I know this is something that’s happening everywhere, as far as (police) being understaffed, but today was the first time I’ve seen an officer on Haywood Street since before the holidays,” Stickle said Jan. 18. “We never see them anymore.”
Haywood Street sees a lot of homeless people, as the library, with public restrooms, is on one end, and Pritchard Park, a popular hangout, is on the other.
Last May, her delivery vehicle, a 1988 Dodge van that she parks in the Civic Center garage, was broken into and totaled. It took the police two and a half hours to show up to take a report.
Stickle said the officer apologized and she was sympathetic, but it’s indicative of that multi-layered problem she referenced. So is the lack of security in the parking garage, by the way.
In November, all four tires on the van were slashed. Stickle said the van had little of value inside, so the break-ins and vandalism are particularly senseless.
On the Sunday morning after the tire slashing, Stickle arrived at the garage with a tire pump and air compressor, hoping to salvage the tires.
“When I got there at 11 in the morning, a guy and girl were sitting in front of my van on the sidewalk in the garage shooting up,” Stickle said. “For the first time in 45 years, I don’t feel … I know I’m getting older, but it’s not that. I’ve known all these folks on the street. I’ve been able to help them, I’ve been able to manage them at times, but I don’t feel safe any more.”
Here’s a sign of the times for downtown business owners: For Christmas, one of Stickle’s friends gave her a Taser.
Before you write Stickle off as someone who’s out of touch or overly sensitive, you should know she is a person who deeply loves Asheville, was a pioneering business woman in its modern revival and considers herself progressive politically.
“It breaks my heart,” Stickle said. “Forty-five years ago when I invested into having a business and seeing Asheville come along, I never thought that the pendulum would swing back. We may have a lot of high-end property and tax value, but it’s less safe now than it was 45 years ago, and that’s just not the way it should be.”
She emphasized that Asheville has a strong community of professionals who can help with mental health and substance abuse problems, and she hopes the city and county tap into that.
‘We Should Not Normalize This!’
Trust me, I hear from a lot of folks who feel the same about downtown — that the homeless people are more aggressive, seem to be on heavy-duty drugs, and that their numbers, and encampments, just keep growing. I recently got a message from a long-time friend who’s been in Asheville for over two decades.
She asked not to use her name.
“It seems like our county/city government cares more about the transients than the tax-paying citizens and the beauty Asheville once held,” she wrote to me in December. “In the past two weeks I’ve seen new tents go up along the Mountains to Sea trail as well as areas in Bent Creek just outside the Arboretum where camping is not allowed. The RAD greenway is home to so many homeless that this is all becoming very unsafe. These aren’t the same homeless as we all used to help provide for. These are drug addicts, as is evident by the needles they leave behind.”
She talked about all the cars, homes, and businesses getting broken into “because even the homeless know the cops won’t come.”
“We should not normalize this! If Asheville wants to be known as a free place to come, do your drugs, rob us, then the county/city need to step up and let us know,” she continued.
An avid runner, she related how she recently went for a run on a street near a park she frequents.
“And two homeless guys came out of the woods and were snooping around my car,” she wrote. “I happened to loop back to put my jacket in, as it was too warm, and I saw them peeking into my windows.”
She yelled at them and aimed her pepper spray at them. They left, but it was still disconcerting.
“Back in the day the homeless used to watch over my car, and I gave them sandwiches,” she said. “This new post-COVID group just wants to steal.”
“You Can’t Do That Here”
I don’t pretend to know all the answers. As Stickle emphasized, this is a multi-layered, complex problem, and we’ve all let it get out of hand.
We don’t have enough truly affordable housing or mental health services or job training – or police. And that’s despite an enormous amount of effort and hundreds and hundreds of very caring people around here.
But I’ll say this, too: We’ve got to demand more of homeless people, too. They have to invest in themselves, in our area.
Stickle said it’s only a matter of time before the word gets out among tourists that Asheville is unsafe, if it hasn’t already. She said she hates that for Asheville, which languished for decades before its revitalization in the early 2000s.
But she also offered some good, tough-love advice.
“The services need to figure out a way to work together,” Stickle said. “But we’ve got to have to have the political will to say, ‘You can’t do that here.’ ”
I wonder if that recommendation will be in the consultant’s report.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org