Archived Opinion

Compassion needed for homelessness

Compassion needed for homelessness

By Jesse-lee Dunlap • Guest Columnist

After last Tuesday’s town hall forum at Frog Level Brewing, I found myself shocked and dismayed by the number of folks who without any shame stood up in public and asked city officials to move homelessness out of their eyesight. I also found myself very proud of my mayor and other community members who stood up for our homeless population.

Mayor Gavin Brown correctly pointed out that moving resources for indigent folks out of the city limits is not helpful in addressing the root issues of homelessness and would only “kick the can down the road.” In contrast to the two people who first stepped up to request Open Door be moved and prided themselves on being residents for two whole years, Chris Westmoreland pointed out that the Open Door has been serving the community for 30 years and would continue to do so in the current location, literally and figuratively meeting people where they are.

My shock and dismay in the last six days has transitioned to pity and compassion. I feel very sorry for these folks who want to pretend like hardships don’t exist for others and I feel sorry that these folks only value other humans by what they produce and consume. Every person I work with and spend time with at the Open Door enriches my life and is a blessing to our community even though they have nothing tangible to offer. Not only that, but the best church service in Haywood County happens at the Open Door every Sunday. Separation from the folks who experience poverty is completely an illusion. We are all connected. And the discomfort of seeing someone in poverty when you walk down to Frog Level (or pretty much anywhere in America these days) should be a catalyst to help, to connect.

Another thing I am proud of Mayor Brown for is pointing out that we do not need more police, that we have a more-than-adequate amount of law enforcement officers in relation to our population. If we address the public health side of things, the public safety concerns will take care of themselves, the police burden will be lightened and with no additional cost to taxpayers. Asheville PD keeps saying that they cannot police themselves out of homelessness but continue to ineffectively throw resources toward policing (for example, increasing foot patrols by 400 percent) and criminalizing poverty. I’m glad to know Gavin won’t take us down that road.  

Where resources need to go is toward places like Pathways and Open Door. A friend of mine from the Netherlands visited our town this summer and while he was here, he gave a presentation at the Folkmoot Center on the Dutch model of Harm Reduction. Bert Tigglers worked in harm reduction for 20 years in the city of Utrecht. What the Utrecht town council decided to do after watching homelessness and associated drug use rise to an alarming degree is to comprehensively address people’s needs — they fed, housed and medically treated their homeless population and at one third the cost of incarceration (by the way, it costs nearly $90 a day to house someone at the Haywood County Detention Center). When you go to Utrecht, you do not see any homeless people, and it’s not because they moved them out of the city — it’s because they provided the necessary resources not just to survive but to thrive. 

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While educating someone about facts regarding homelessness, I am not sure how to cultivate compassion from folks. We have solutions in front of us that would be more effective and cheaper than jail, so I’m hopeful that we will pick one that lifts up Waynesville and Haywood County as a whole, and that whole includes our homeless folks. 

(Dunlap lives in Haywood County and works for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Caolition. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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