Saturday, March 24, 2012

Commentary by John Spitzberg

Guest Commentary to the Asheville Citizen Times, but was not published.
            The Asheville Homeless Network (AHN) wants to go on record to censure the Asheville City Council for eliminating the Occupy Asheville Tent City without offering some tangible safe haven for the most vulnerable and marginalized people in this city.  We speak of the chronically homeless who joined forces with the Occupy Asheville Movement to change macro level problems in this community and the country. 

            This City Council should boast of its adopted strategic plan which starts with the word Affordable. “The City of Asheville will offer a standard of living that is affordable and attainable for people of all income levels, life stages and abilities” (Welcome brochure at City Hall). Are these merely pretty words on paper?  Is the mayor and the City Council willing to enforce this strategic plan as much as they are enforcing a ban on camping?  Unfortunately, the only funding that we know of here in Asheville to house the homeless comes from the Federal Government by way of Housing and Urban Development to the tune of nearly $1,000,000.  Some of this money goes to paying salaries for those involved in finding housing while providing modest case management services to those housed. Limited day shelter services at A-Hope Day Shelter, a service provided by Homeward Bound has systematically cut its services due to no funding by the local government.

            Religious organizations such as ABCCM, Western Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army provide overnight sheltering, but the price is that a homeless person loses his or her dignity by having to report by 4 or 5 p.m.or they will lose the right to stay in the facility.  Many feel trivialized by having to meet these standards.  Furthermore, the chronic homeless are criminalized because they are denied the right to camp in most areas and can be arrested for trespass or vagrancy.  The community ends up paying heavily for their stay in the new and “improved” detention center.  A safe haven camp site would ultimately be cheaper.

            Council member Gordon Smith claims that many former homeless have been housed by agencies such as Homeward Bound and he is correct. Our appreciation goes to Brian Alexander and his team.  But in Asheville many of the chronically homeless, some of whom are beset by addiction and/or mental illness are not housed.  The city’s local housing office does not accept them according to our members. Nationally, about 15-20% of the homeless are what HUD would call chronic.  These are the people whom AHN represent and they are systematically left out of the strategic plan which the Council touts.  We are told that Homeward Bound has an outreach worker for chronically homeless people, but this worker has never approached AHN in any sort of collaborative manner. The City’s hired Homeless Initiative employee sends her Americorps Vista worker to our meetings from time to time, but there is little dialog on what the city is willing to do for or about the chronically homeless.

            Abraham Maslow, a developmental psychologist developed a Hierarchy of Needs. Basic needs such as shelter, food, and clothing were offered at the tent city.  Security needs were met because people tried to protect each other. Some of the chronically homeless felt a sense of belonging and nurturing while others rose to leadership positions in the camp..  What this city council has done is to make the most vulnerable people in the city return to foraging for their most basic needs, to fend for themselves, and risk being criminals again because of their economic status. Shame on the City Council members who voted against providing a safe haven for the chronically homeless population. Thank you to Cecil Bothwell and Gordon Smith who did not join the majority in that vote on Tuesday, Valentines Day.  Council members where is your love and caring?

            The answer to this problem is for the City Council to finance a safe haven for the chronically homeless, a place where they may camp together with safety assured and case management services using a harm reduction model. The agencies should provide housing first which provides wrap-around social work services for those who wish to be housed.  Since the 18th century though, there have been those who wish to remain outside under the stars. They should not be criminalized or penalized for this individualism. The AHN encourages citizens to come to the defense and help the most marginalized and vulnerable population in Asheville and Buncombe County, the chronically homeless.  Please join us every Thurday, 2 pm at Firestorm Café on Commerce Street.

     Approved by the Asheville Homeless Network Membership (Of the homeless, formerly homeless and their supporters).  Written by John Spitzberg, Secretary/Treasurer


And here is a letter to the editor written by John Spitzberg, which also was not published.

A poem written by John Alexander McCrae, Flanders Fields haunts my memory as I drive by every day to once was Occupy Tent City just below the mammoth City Hall.  The names of the warriors are not from the roles of the British soldiers of World War I, but are none-the-less soldiers in the name of change. I gaze upon the flat greenery which once was full of colorful tents and banners and I hear the voices of beautiful people like Starr, Tracy, Kat, Fox, Glowlady, Venus, T.J., Kayvon, Tom, Tim, Matt, Weitzel, and unknown soldiers of the street brigade and I cry for them.  It is now a piece of land marked by ordinance signs:  flat, lifeless, tired and deserted. I think of the Buddhist nuns and monks who immolated themselves in old Saigon and I ask were these brave campers any different really? 

I remember the few but significant workers from the Goliath building which loomed over the tents who winked in silent approval while others sneered and sheepishly marched to the tune of a different drummer full of hate and fear.  Who are the 99% when so many fiddle while Rome burns? So when you pass the Occupy spaces on Lexington Avenue, before the Federal Building, the Wells Fargo Bank and the Merrill Lynch enclave, heed John Donne who said: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee”.

Some of you may think that using this platform to voice my concerns is not a good idea, but the Occupy movement is far from over and I am certain that we are just in the beginning of the Spring drives for righting the wrongs.  One of the pundits of the movement, Chris Hedges entitled his piece of 2/14/12 Occupy draws Strength from the Powerless.  I agree with this heading and suggest that hopefully you might also.  - John Spitzberg

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