The Homeless Population Of Asheville That No One Talks About

This is the Asheville that magazines and travel guides don’t tell you about.
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Written by BeLoved Community Builder, Amy Cantrell

Asheville, North Carolina has been topping lists for the last few years ― “The 17 Best Places to Travel in 2017,” “The Best Cities for Beer Drinkers,” etc. As Asheville residents, we are now used to these accolades and many more. But people shoved to the margins for years are now bleeding from the deep, new wounds of an estimated $1 billion dollar development boom.

“In this new development boom, we have become number two in the nation for gentrification...”

We have started to call this boom Urban Renewal 2.0. During Asheville’s first wave of urban renewal, that began in the ’70s, scores of African American people lost their houses and businesses and were relegated to housing projects. That poverty still persists today. In this new boom, we have become number two in the nation for gentrification, are in a persistent affordable housing crisis and make the annual top 10 lists for worst food insecurity in the nation.

Ponkho Bermejo/Adrienne Sigmon

Most people take pictures of Asheville from atop tall buildings to get a skyline view of downtown or from atop one of our beautiful mountains. But what does Asheville look like from the streets? How do our neighbors living on the streets view this place?

This morning, while walking down the street, I said, “Good morning, awesome women!” to two friends I knew sitting under the shade of a tree. “We love you, Amy!” They greeted back. “I love y’all, too,” I responded. One shouted back, “We love you 10 times more.” This is the abundant economy of love on the streets here. These women often live and work on our streets. The boom has not brought living wage jobs to people in struggle, who get “invisibilized” and pushed even further into the shadows. They do what they can to survive. This is the economy of boom town.

I continued walking down a cross street behind a man. He woke up on the streets this morning. I knew this, not because he told me, but because his pants had that tell-tale sign of having laid on the ground. It is a stain that most wouldn’t notice, but I know it all too well.

Ponkho Bermejo/Adrienne Sigmon
Ponkho Bermejo/Adrienne Sigmon

These beautiful, suffering, strong and surviving people are my Asheville. Every day at BeLoved Asheville, a nonprofit that creates a supportive community for our friends on the streets, we welcome this Asheville. Together we are tackling some of the greatest struggles of our times with community, creativity and innovation.

“These beautiful, suffering, strong and surviving people are my Asheville.”

These solutions come, not from the tops of chic hotels or from the halls of power, but from the streets. We are building community gardens by dumpsters at the fence lines of million dollar developments. We are creating free farmers markets for the elderly and children. We are dreaming of new ways to house ourselves and create our own incomes. We are taking trash and cast-offs and resourcing our community and building our future.

Ponkho Bermejo/Adrienne Sigmon

In the shadows of cranes, million-dollar buildings and big developments on the edge of the newest beer district (recently dubbed “the South Slope”), people gathered in a parking lot to share a meal, hugs, trade jokes and news. Our street medic team (which consists of homeless people trained to help other homeless people) was handing out prevention instructions dealing with colds, flu and hyperthermia.

Even though the fall days are beautiful here, people who live on the streets are already facing the fear that creeps into their bloodstream and bones when winter is coming. We held this gathering in memory of Janet Jones who froze to death in her sleeping bag during the first cold snap of last year, in October 2016. It was then we learned that, according to CNN, street homelessness is the most fatal condition in the country; the life expectancy rate is between 42-52 on average. Our homeless street medic team was created by our Homeless Voice group because of the tragedy of Janet’s death. But Janet is not the exception; she is more like the sad rule: An average of 20 people die every year from homeless-related health causes here. This is the Asheville that magazines and travel guides don’t tell you about.

Ponkho Bermejo/Adrienne Sigmon

I decided to go person-to-person in the parking lot asking them to write about the Asheville they knew. “What do you like about Asheville?” I asked. One woman just shook her head and thought a long minute. “BeLoved!” she burst out. “I really love BeLoved.”

“What would you do if you were mayor?” I asked. One man grinned and said he’d likely get impeached for giving all the money away in the city budget.

Another one of my friends told me he had lived here in the late ’90s and early 2000s: “I could afford a house here for about $400-500 a month. Then me and my wife left to take jobs in SC. We just got laid off and came back here. Now we’re homeless. We can’t afford anything here anymore. And did you know the places across from the Rescue Mission are running like $2100 a month? What are people gonna do?”

The Patton apartments are named after the street that runs between them, where hundreds of homeless people are sheltered at the Rescue Mission, and Patton Avenue was named after a city father who owned slaves (many of our streets are named for slaveholders.) The Patton website announces that they are “coming in the winter 2017” along with the freezing temperatures that make the blood of our street friends run cold. Their advertisements are superimposed on the fence facing the Rescue Mission and contain young, successful-looking people who are extremely happy.

Ponkho Bermejo/Adrienne Sigmon

I asked my friend, who lives in the shadow of the growing Patton apartments, what he would do if he were mayor. “I would stop building those apartments for the people that don’t need them, and I would build places for all of these people,” he said gesturing his arm around to the crowd of gathered people carrying all of their possessions on their backs.

We live in the American shadow. We live between “the Pattons” of the world. We live on every street corner and just around every corner. We are your friend, your neighbor who has gifts and dreams and hopes. Will we ever look to the sky and see cranes building our futures? Will we see city coffers emptied out in reparations to communities of color and in support of lifting our people out of poverty? This is the America we dream of when we gather at BeLoved Asheville on Grove St., when we sit in the living room of this humbled house, which is “home away from home” to people on the streets.

Visit BeLoved Asheville’s website here.

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