When the city of Asheville, NC had a summit on the city’s housing crisis in 2015 recognizing that many of the people working in the rapidly gentrifying tourist destination in the mountains could not afford to live in the city, the Rev. Amy Cantrell’s Beloved Asheville group was the only group at the table that included homeless people and others impacted by the lack of housing.
Cantrell occupies a unique position between the worlds of endless city council budget meetings, relentless advocacy, and trusted relationships on the street that enable emergent ministries to arise led by homeless people. Meeting regularly for a year with a group that called themselves the homeless boys, she worked with them to create the first mobile medic team of homeless people working with their peers on the street. That team had formed when a homeless woman named Janet had frozen on the street a couple of years ago.
“We got together and said what do we want to do about this,” Cantrel recalled. A memorial service with an empty coffin funeral in front of the local federal building was the answer. “We wanted to show that homelessness was a public health emergency, not a policing problem,” Cantrell said. “Then we asked what do we want to do next?” The mobile medic team was the homeless boys’ answer. “They said they wanted to create a culture of prevention and health. All the things the health care professionals have discovered, they just knew.” After persuading local doctors and clinics that homeless boys could in fact be trusted to provide care on the street, and should be trained and given equipment, they held a medical fair with local hospital and other professionals along with the mobile homeless medics in a park frequented by homeless and people passing through town.
Looking down from a small promontory at the tables set up around the park, Cantrell saw the fruits of her work. “All of the crowd (of street people) was around the mobile medics; they knew them and trusted them. They didn’t have the most skills, but they know the struggles people on the street have that people who learn about the problem from reading books never will know. They had an intuition into the people (who needed help) and were trusted.”
It’s results like that on the street that enable Cantrell to be a different kind of activist, and it’s caused her to get government to listen to the solutions her group comes up with. “We created a container for that voice, and we claim a seat at the table when decisions are being made.” During Covid-19 it’s resulted in on the street open food pantries and hand washing stations, effective and safe regular food delivery to senior housing facilities, and finally, the use of the local convention center to house the homeless during the crisis.
Cantrell pushes her advocacy to the limit but manages to maintain relationships with the people in power. “I recognize they have a position of power and that they are also a person in that role. I am going to have to go back to them again and I am friends with a lot of them. I come to them with love.” She has more trouble with activists who demonize authority figures than with people doing their jobs.
In early March she texted the chairman of the local county commissioners at midnight when a freezing storm with strong winds was coming to town. “My people are out on the street tonight” she said. He expressed his sympathy and said he was working on a solution. Two days later the local civic center was opened for homeless shelter. When she was told there was no one to staff the facility, she talked to people she knew in departments around the city that were shut down, where staffers had nothing to do. Staff was found and the center opened.
“The seeds planted in relationships over many years are now coming into fruition in a crisis,”Cantrell said. Beloved Asheville is a small community of faith that lives together in intentional poverty. Cantrell, an ordained presbyterian minister doesn’t attend a local church but before Covid-19 spent most Sundays preaching in local churches or talking to Sunday schools or church coffee hours, telling the story of the people she works with, the homeless and with African Americans on policing problems.
She’s been working to get the local tourism board to open the empty hotels for other homeless with no luck so far, but
Cantrell usually doesn’t come into a situation with a plan for what do to for people, but instead with a practiced method of listening and responding that’s formed by two theologians who also guide her approach as a voice for the powerless to the powerful: William Stringfellow and Walter Wink.
“I’ve spent most of the last 20 years working with communities impacted by various interlocked oppressions of capitalism and a white supremacist system. What I found that was absent in most models of change is that most models of change come in with a case management, paternalistic approach that don’t take into account the gifts of the people who just lack the resources to change.”
Though she is usually responsive to the immediate situation, sometimes repeated problems give Cantrell the insight into a systemic problem that needs to be understand and changed.
“We studied what’s going on around the country and why no interim housing for the homeless was being built. Most plans work with folks who have 80% of the median income, we wanted to work with people at 30% of the median income. We studied it for a year.” In 2017 they created a video on Facebook about their plan. Two weeks later an email came in from a church that would donate an acre. Then came hours, weeks and days working on zoning issues. “I’m a pastor, I had no expertise. We were mainly the least likely people to do this. But we had to figure it out. I had to learn GIS, cobbling together a unique zoning exemption, etc. They got a civil engineer to work pro bono. They’ve raised $94,000, which was budgeted as the the amount for one 500 square foot house, but due to homeless putting in sweat equity on the house, and other in kind donations, have used that money to being work on a second house.
They got a local church to give them an acre of land and have raised money for the first two transition houses of an envisioned larger project for formerly homeless. Much of the work is done by homeless themselves; one carpenter working on a hotel construction project was living in a tent while he worked.
Beloved Asheville is part of a peer group launched by Faith and Finance of practitioners working on church assets in transition, adding affordable housing or transitional housing like Beloved to church property and participated in that group’s first zoom call this week. Their low cost model, using homeless sweat equity could perhaps be replicated if people understand how to listen to, believe in find the resources to use the gifts of people effected by the problem.
A girl who was in church every time the doors were open in Spartanburg, SC, Cantrell life was upended with a high school youth group trip to Harlem, where she encountered Stringfellow’s work and Mathew:25 (when you fed the least of these, you did it to me; maybe summarize better). “I knew the Bible so well, people would laugh at me for that, and I had to think that that” that way of thinking was just kept from me.”
She was different forever after that and began to devour both Stringfellow, who was a street lawyer in Harlem as well as a theologian, and Wink, a theologian who wrote about powers and principalities and how to understand and see them at work, blending both to understand “how power functions in systems and institutions that have a spirit, seeing the office and the person working in the office. I came to understand how they function and that it’s the vocation of people of faith to call these institutions back to their intent to serve humanity.”
She began volunteering in a soup kitchen in college and broke the rules by not just serving them through a window, but taking a bowl of soup and going out to sit with the people being served, brushing off the warnings of the people in the kitchen who told that would be dangerous. “I found out I was comfortable in those circles,” she said. Raised in an all white community, she had a mentor she worked with to dismantle her own racist attitudes. In college she was the only white student allowed to be a member of the African American student association.
In Asheville she has taken on the role of being a leading moral voice on public policy who also maintains a direct relationship with the people impacted by injustice but without top down programs or plans. “We’ve created a nimble container that can be very responsive to to the community. It’s not like we have a lot of deep insight, we just move to the pulse of the things that need to created. We have an idea and then try to birth it, with the fewest components, just a kind of stone soup, letting people we work with lead with their gifts.”