Homelessness and the First Amendment on trial in Asheville

By: - February 17, 2023 5:59 am

Asheville P.D officers approach tents prior to clearing Aston Park in April of 2021. Photo courtesy Veronica Coit/Asheville Blade)

City draws fire for its treatment of unhoused population and arrest of journalists attempting to cover police sweep of city park   

It was Christmas night, so Veronica Coit hadn’t expected to stay at Aston Park for long. They had come to bring their colleague, Matilda Bliss, a plate from dinner: turkey, sweet potato- and green bean-casseroles, collard greens and a slice of pie.

Coit, whose pronouns are they and them, figured they’d be back home with their family shortly, maybe ending the Christmas night of 2021 the same way as the one before: watching doll-making and rug-cleaning videos on YouTube.

Coit’s plans changed once they saw how many police officers were there.

Coit and Bliss are on staff at the Asheville Blade, described on its website as a “leftist local news co-op focusing on hard-hitting journalism, in-depth investigation and sharp views from our city.” The reporters had been closely covering Asheville’s response to homelessness, a serious issue in a town with a pricey housing market, a rising cost of living and a lack of affordable housing.

Bliss had received a text that evening that police at Aston Park were preparing to clear an encampment of tents and personal items owned by unsheltered people and their allies.

Asheville police had broken up another encampment there the previous April, arresting four people. To Bliss and Coit, staying in the park that Christmas night was just a matter of two journalists following the story.

“This needs to be witnessed, and needs to be talked about,” Coit later said of their decision to sacrifice family time for reporting duties.

Within hours, both Blade reporters would be arrested. Coit was wearing a Santa dress when officers put handcuffs on their wrists.

Priced out of housing, with nowhere to go

Aston Park is small, a grassy hill with a towering oak tree in its center. There are a smattering of places to play pickleball or tennis, billed as “one of the finest public clay tennis court facilities in the U.S.”

The park is in a part of Asheville that, like much of the city, is gentrifying. It’s in the South French Broad neighborhood, a historically Black community that in recent years has become whiter and more affluent.

There is a plethora of upscale apartment complexes nearby. But the park is also in the shadow of the Asheville Housing Authority; the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County, which serves many members of the city’s marginalized groups, is just across the street.

At the crest of a hill with a path leading to the park’s exit is a sign nailed to a telephone poll. It reads, “I thank the lord there’s people out there like you.”

Protesters had been meeting in the park all week leading up to Christmas 2021. According to an article in the Asheville Free Press, they gathered on Dec. 19 through the 22nd to make art and push city officials to institute “sanctuary camping,” a space where camping is allowed and residents can access restrooms and amenities to dispose of waste and sharps.

It is illegal to camp on city property. Aston Park closes at 10 p.m. and reopens at 6 in the morning. Organizers and folks without housing would leave each night and return the next day, as police would clear the camps and threaten to charge people who had left their tents on city property.

“Parks and public spaces in Asheville, the city does not see them for what they should be,” said Elsa Enstrom, one of the demonstrators. “They should be spaces to build community and spaces for any community member to feel safe.”

Asheville is a city with a progressive identity, a place that created a Community Reparations Commission and publicly committed to reimagining how it views public safety. But those who gathered at Aston Park in 2021 weren’t buying that message.

“Asheville likes to create the veneer that is a progressive city that uplifts the marginalized, but Asheville is really only interested in progressives with money,” Enstrom said. “The city of Asheville and Buncombe County, really, they spend their time trying to attract those people with that are going to knock the top off a mountain and build a four-story mansion and stay there three months out of the year and call themselves liberals.”

(Base map and census data: DEQ Community Mapping System)

At a city council meeting held last year, Asheville Police Department Captain Michael Lamb told city officials that police visit the parks every day to make sure there aren’t needles and trash lying around. He said that officers regularly interact with people trying to camp there.

“In most cases we do not issue any enforcement action against these campers,” Lamb said. “But occasionally we do have activists, anarchists, who refuse to leave and obstruct camp cleanup or tent removal.”

Kim Roney, one of the council members, wondered aloud whether the city had violated CDC guidelines for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness by kicking people out of parks, which could disconnect them from vital services. Perhaps, Roney said, the city could instead provide sanitation services, water, and 24-hour bathrooms.

Then Roney hit on the central tension between Asheville’s public image as a progressive utopia and the way it treats its most marginalized.

“We marketed Asheville as a place to come that’s welcoming and inclusive, and it’s a beautiful place and you should come to visit, and you should come be our neighbor,” Roney said. “If you have $700,000 to buy a house, you’re a neighbor. If you have $700 to rent a hotel room, you’re a visitor. But if you can’t afford those things, and you have $7 and a tent, then you need to go away.”

The city and county commissioned a report unveiled last month aimed at reducing homelessness in Asheville by 50% over the next two years. Emily Ball, the city’s homeless strategy division manager, pinned the report’s recommendations summary to a whiteboard in her office.

Sanctuary camping is not among those recommendations. What is, however, is creating an encampment resolution policy. It would reduce the risks of homeless people being harmed when their camps are broken up.

Ball sees the encampment response as one piece of the report’s overarching goal: to create a strong foundation on which to build the city and county’s homeless support services.

“I think the most important recommendation is getting that structure right and really clarifying who leads our community’s response to homelessness,” Ball said. “It will give us a mechanism to work together, to be strategic, to make decisions. That will change things for people who are going to sleep outside tonight.”

Ball doesn’t see sanctuary camping as an ideal solution to homelessness. She wants to build a system that goes beyond simply managing a person’s crisis. Instead, she wants to give people an array of resources to resolve that crisis, helping them keep a roof over their head.

“The goal is permanent housing, the goal is that no one is homeless in our community because we have a robust crisis response system that can quickly resolve that crisis when it occurs,” she said. “I think we can do better than camping.”

Story continues below the data

By the numbers: Homelessness in Asheville

Asheville is one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the U.S. And as it gets more expensive to afford housing in the western North Carolina town, the number of people without housing grows.

46 – Percentage of households in Asheville that put more than 30% of their income toward housing

19 – Percentage of households in Asheville that put more than 50% of their income toward housing

637 – Number of Asheville residents experiencing homelessness in 2022

230 – Number of people living unsheltered in Asheville in 2022

6 – Percentage of Buncombe County’s population that is Black

24 – Percentage of Buncombe County’s homeless population that is Black

21% – Increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in Asheville since 2021

94,000 – Number of Asheville residents as of 2021, a 13% increase from 2010

41 – Percentage that rents have risen in Asheville since the onset of the pandemic

A not-so-silent night

Bliss visited Aston Park throughout Christmas Day 2021, coming back before its 10 p.m. closure. Police officers started warning people around 9:40 that they’d have to leave once the park closed, according to video from police body cameras later shown in court.

Officers came back at 10. Anyone who stayed on the park grounds would be arrested for trespassing. Those looking to avoid arrest didn’t have to go far; stepping on the sidewalk would take them off park property and keep them in compliance with the law.

As authorities tried to oust them from the park, organizers asked police where the unsheltered people were supposed to go.

“There’s shelters,” one officer responded. More than a year later, that same officer would testify in court that police don’t always have an answer to that question.

“We just don’t have a place to let these people camp out,” the officer later testified. “A lot of times we don’t have resources to provide.”

Coit and Bliss held their ground that night. Both said they identified themselves as members of the press and stayed to observe and report on the police activity. Bliss said the pair stood together “as far away as we could while still being able to cover what was happening.”

Nonetheless, police arrested the journalists, charging them with trespassing, a misdemeanor that can carry up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine.

Four other people were arrested that night. About a dozen others, including Enstrom, were later charged with felony littering.

Enstrom accepted a plea deal for a misdemeanor so her professional license required for her job wouldn’t be jeopardized by a felony conviction.

“I’m the main breadwinner in my family,” Enstrom said. “We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, and property taxes ain’t no different. I have a mortgage on the house, but the property taxes keep going up every year and the cost of everything is worse.”

Before they were even convicted, Enstrom and the organizers charged with felony littering were banned from city parks for three years.

“That doesn’t seem like a willingness to allow community in parks,” said Pip Flickinger, who also was at Aston Park during the 2021 demonstrations and charged with felony littering.

But it was the journalists who were arrested first that Christmas night. Bliss thinks that was intentional, to stifle their ability to report what was happening.

“We weren’t able to track what was happening when people started being removed from tents,” Bliss said.

Coit was the first person brought in for booking that evening. There, they said they heard an exchange between the magistrate and a police officer.

“I heard him say to the magistrate, ‘She’s saying that she’s press,’” Coit recalled. “And the magistrate responded, ‘Well, is she the real press?’”

Who’s a journalist?

The Blade does not mince words. Its editor, David Forbes, said the “openly leftist” outlet regularly publishes articles critical of city government and the police. Its staff members are fierce advocates for the marginalized, highlighting the needs of people they feel are left behind as the city becomes more unaffordable.

It is also a publication that believes in police abolition, one Forbes said regularly challenges police narratives — often putting it at odds with those in power.

Police have even arrested Coit while they were reporting before. Officers pulled Coit out of their car and bound their wrists with zip ties during an anti-racism rally in August 2020. The charges were later dropped.

“We make no bones about where our perspective comes from,” Forbes said. “We’re the publication less concerned with the fancy new restaurant opening up, and more concerned with how the people working there are being treated.”

The outlet’s perspective is rooted in the lived experience of the people who work there — perspectives and identities that give them a deeper understanding of issues faced by some of the most marginalized members of Asheville’s communities.

“We are all working class, trans and non-binary people,” Forbes said. “We get treated differently because our politics are different from the police department.”

The Freedom of the Press Foundation has denounced the charges against the Blade reporters stemming from Christmas night 2021. In a online post, Seth Stern, the organization’s director of advocacy, called the charges “an affront to press freedoms and everyone involved should be ashamed.”

Stern wrote that First Amendment protections are especially important when it comes to interactions between people with power, like police officers, and those without it, like people who are homeless.

“Attempts to criminalize journalism should serve as a call to action for citizens who value the freedom of the press,” Stern wrote.

The city’s Public Safety Committee held a virtual meeting a month after Bliss and Coit’s arrests. Recounting the night, Asheville Police Department Deputy Chief Mike Yelton said officers told everyone they had to disburse at 10 p.m., after the park had closed.

A slide on Yelton’s presentation read: “Once laws are willingly broken, one ceases to be an independent observer or journalist and becomes a participant.”

City Attorney Brad Branham backed Yelton. Branham said the First Amendment guarantees journalists’ ability to take photos or observe happenings in public spaces, but that right can be limited, like once a park is closed for the evening.

(Photo courtesy Veronica Coit/Asheville Blade)

“Remaining there after, even as a journalist, would not somehow allow you to rise above the legal limitations in those restrictions that are set as reasonable, time place and manner restrictions on First Amendment rights,” Branham told the members of the committee.

Journalists have protections under federal law, Branham said, but “they are not immune from having to follow reasonable police instructions in the event of a protest, or to abide by other laws.”

A year after their arrest, Bliss and Coit’s case is unresolved. Both were scheduled to go to trial in late January, but it was postponed after a prosecutor unsuccessfully attempted to try their case the same time as one of the protesters, arguing that doing all the cases at once would most efficiently manage the court’s time.

The journalists’ attorney, Ben Scales, told the judge he’d only found out about this plan an hour earlier. He said that the third defendant was charged with resisting a public officer, a charge neither Bliss nor Coit was facing.

“They’re not the same case. They do not belong together,” Scales said.

The judge agreed. Hours later, he found the third defendant guilty of trespassing and resisting a public officer.

The journalists are now scheduled to go on trial April 19.

Coit sees themself as incredibly privileged relative to others charged that night, since the pending charges haven’t impacted their ability to care for their family. But the potential conviction still looms over their head as they prepare for a move to Denver this summer.

Coit has lived in Asheville for 20 years, “a whole life.” The move is the right one for their family. But they are also tired of the ways Asheville has changed over the years, and exhausted from being targeted for their political ideology. As others pour into the western North Carolina city, Coit and their family are heading further west.

“It’s time to get out of Asheville.”

More homelessness coverage from The Asheville Blade:

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Kelan Lyons
Kelan Lyons

Investigative Reporter Kelan Lyons writes about criminal and civil justice, including high-profile litigation, prison and jail conditions, housing, and the challenges people face when they leave prison.