Firestorm Books & Coffee, a co-operative bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina, and the Steady Collective, a nonprofit organization that hosts a weekly syringe exchange program at the bookstore, filed formal appeals with the Asheville Board of Adjustment following notices issued by the city claiming that the organizations were operating an unpermitted shelter.
Firestorm began offering space to the Steady Collective in November 2016, a few months after North Carolina legalized syringe exchange programs, which collect used syringes from people who inject drugs and exchange them for sterile syringes and access to social services. During Steady Collective’s weekly event at Firestorm, held on Tuesdays from 1:30 to 4:00 p.m., it distributes educational materials, naloxone (a medication used to block the effects of opioids and reverse overdoses), referrals to substance use treatment, and new syringes.
According to Steady Collective Executive Director Hillary Brown, the weekly outreach at Firestorm is saving lives: “As of September 11, 62 overdoses have been reversed this year with naloxone we distributed at Firestorm. Countless abscesses and other injection-related injuries have been avoided because of our program. We may never know how many folks didn’t contract Hep C or HIV because of supplies we have handed out over the last two years.”
Firestorm and the Steady Collective received notices of zoning violations issued by the City of Asheville on August 17, 2018. The notices claim that the organizations were operating as a shelter without a permit.
Both organizations responded by filing appeals on September 17, arguing that neither is operating as a shelter. Asheville’s Unified Development Ordinance definition of a shelter includes that it must be a non-profit, charitable, or religious organization — which Firestorm is not — and that it “provides boarding and/or lodging and ancillary services on its premises to primarily indigent, needy, homeless, or transient persons,” a stipulation that neither Firestorm or the Steady Collective meet.
The appeals also assert the organizations’ belief that the city’s enforcement action is unconstitutional. Members of Firestorm and the Steady Collective argue that the City of Asheville’s actions are discriminatory and threaten to exacerbate a public health problem.
“Since launching our co-op in 2008, we’ve never had the city investigate the content of our community calendar,” said Firestorm member and co-owner Libertie Valance. “The sudden interest in our programming — and specifically in an event that helps drug users, the homeless, neighbors who use syringes for legal medical treatment, and transgender folks — is discriminatory. Other local bookstores aren’t being targeted by the city for making space available to more affluent participants, but we’re being threatened with fines and court action. ‘Discriminatory’ is the only way to describe the city’s actions.”
Valance believes that the city’s action demonstrates its confusion about the role that bookstores play in their communities: “We are being told by the Zoning Department that, as a bookstore, we shouldn’t be hosting non-book events. This is obviously absurd and represents a misunderstanding of indie bookstores and the critical role they play as third spaces for community to gather and grow together. It is also an invasive attempt to meddle in the content of our store and restrict our voice as a business.”
Firestorm reports that it has received significant support from the community on the issue. While it has spent about $4,500 contesting the zoning violations so far, some of the costs have been offset by donations made through a GoFundMe campaign. The Steady Collective additionally received an anonymous donation of $25,000.
An appeals hearing is now scheduled for January 28, at which Firestorm and the Steady Collective are hoping for a large turnout of community members.