Mixed signals and confusion over enforcement of Fayetteville’s no-camping ordinance have some in the city’s homeless community decrying the lack of response to their plight.
Neil Culbreth, an unhoused man who has a disability and multiple health problems, said the disconnect between what he and others like him experience when seeking a place to sleep — and what they’re told about availability of shelters — demonstrates an incoherence in the local approach to homelessness.
“The right hand don't know what the left hand’s doing,” he said.
Case in point, they say: A small group of unsheltered people who usually sleep across the street from Cumberland County Headquarters Library were told by police to leave the area last week because they were violating the city’s no-camping ordinance. They claim officers notified the group last Wednesday they needed to leave by Friday or would be cited for the violation.
A few days later, the group is still on the streets, relocating not far away and avoiding the library, but unsure where to go and frustrated by not having access to more emergency and permanent sheltering options — and by questions over whether indeed the encampment was considered a high public health risk.
And, as well, fearing citations or a “sweep” that would forcibly remove them from a place they feel safe.
City Council members Deno Hondros and Mario Benavente, who serve on the city’s Homeless and Mental Health Committee, said Monday they had not heard about the Police Department’s intention to clear the area.
Culbreth said police previously asked the group to move from the library to the other side of the street. The group complied, even though they’d spent many nights adjacent to the library.
“Now we're here, and we can’t stay here,” Culbreth said last Thursday.
At least, according to the ordinance, to sleep.
“They have every right to be there, but they are in violation of the city’s camping ordinance if they are camping there overnight,” Marketing and Communications Director Loren Bymer told CityView. “We have been engaging with them and encouraging them to use available resources like the Day Resource Center.”
Bymer confirmed that police officers had asked the group Wednesday to vacate the area by Friday, which they did.
“They were reminded that there are available resources,” he said. “There is a city camping ordinance and there is a citation associated with that ordinance if it is violated.”
Joseph Wheeler, leader of the Homeless Assembly, an organization advocating for the homeless community, said police who encounter the homeless have repeatedly threatened them with citations for violating the ordinance. In his view, the police officers dealing with the homeless community don’t seem to have a “sympathetic, empathetic, compassionate side for the homeless,” a view other unhoused individuals from the library group have agreed with.
Wheeler has been working to contest the ordinance and has approached the American Civil Liberties Union for legal support.
“I found out yesterday that my restraining order on the ordinance has gone through the ACLU,” Wheeler told CityView on Friday. “The lawyer that was working on the curfew piece is now looking at my restraining order on the ordinance.”
Avoiding a potential confrontation
The homeless group that had utilized the area near the library had considered returning to the initial spot Monday of this week, since some speculated talk of a clearing was preempted by the International Folk Festival scheduled over the weekend. Multiple police cars were patrolling the area throughout the weekend, with Maiden Lane shut down for the festival.
Roxanne Culbreth, Neil Culbreth’s wife, said, however, the group decided not to go back to the library spot, since police had continued to patrol the area during the day and they did not want to face a potential confrontation. She told CityView on Monday evening that no one affected by the clearing had been approached by the city or received help finding an alternative shelter.
They had been hoping to find emergency shelter at least starting Friday night, so they could avoid weekend storms. The Culbreths called Smith Recreation Center, an emergency shelter, on Friday to see if they would be opening and were told no; they also said no other city or county emergency shelters would operate.
Wheeler and several others in the homeless community said the city in recent months has provided unhoused people with hotel vouchers for emergency shelter.
“Put us in hotel shelters, which were working and have been proven to work city by city by city,” he said.
According to a recent report from the city’s homeless Impact Reduction Program, which aims “to address homelessness through a collaborative and proactive approach,” the program’s budget since it was started last November included $45,000 to provide temporary shelter and lodging for individuals transitioning from high-risk encampments to a safer environment. The report notes that the “financial allocation has been strategically utilized,” suggesting that the funds have already been spent.
Wheeler and others in the homeless community told CityView that they have been informed by Coordinated Entry volunteers on repeated occasions that funds for emergency shelter space have been exhausted. Coordinated Entry, which is overseen by the Fayetteville-Cumberland County Continuum of Care (CoC), is “a process in which people who are experiencing a housing crisis are quickly assessed, referred and connected to local resources,” according to the CoC website. Efforts by CityView to contact Coordinated Entry officials were unsuccessful.
Employees at the Day Resource Center said they were not allowed to speak to the media and referred all questions to the center’s director, Leanne Scalli. Scalli did not respond by Tuesday evening to a request through her office for comment.
Some homeless people who had been part of the library group also said they were told to go to either the Salvation Army of the Sandhills shelter or the Operation Inasmuch shelter, The Lodge, which is for men only.
The Salvation Army Shelter, the only multigender homeless shelter in the city, had only “one to two” beds available late last week, a staff member told CityView. It was unclear whether there was any available space at The Lodge or another men’s shelter, Manna Dream Center. The center has 20 beds with a 95% occupancy, according to Fayetteville’s latest quarterly report on homelessness. City officials did not immediately respond to questions about shelter space.
Ordinance enforcement unclear
The extent to which police are enforcing the no-camping ordinance remains unclear. Questions directed to the public information officers for both the city and the Police Department about enforcement and citations did not immediately yield a response.
The day after this story was published, the public information officer for the Fayetteville Police Department, Rickelle Harrell, responded to CityView's request for comment on the ordinance's level of enforcement.
"Our Officers enforce ordinances as they are able," Harrell said. "Our Homeless Officer is the primary point of contact for ordinances related to our unhoused population."
Members of the homeless community have previously criticized the Homeless Officer's treatment of them. Wheeler voiced his latest criticism in an email on behalf of the Homeless Assembly that was provided to CityView, community organizations and some city officials on Tuesday.
"The officer does not voice concerns of the homeless, mainly threatens with ordinance laws and abuses police authority to criminalize homeless men and women in public spaces," Wheeler wrote.
In response to whether any unhoused people had been arrested or recieved a citation for violating the ordinance since the city's last major sweeps, Harrell said the Police Department did not have that data "readily available," as it "would require coordination with our Crime Analyst Supervisor."
But Chris Cauley, director of the city’s Economic and Community Development Department, said recently the city has not been regularly enforcing the ordinance.
“The idea was to not enforce the ordinance unless that was the last straw,” Cauley told the City Council on Sept. 5.
The city conducted two major clearings earlier this year of “high-risk” encampments, including the Ray Avenue and Maiden Lane traffic circle encampment and the Gillespie Street encampment. These displaced 37 people, according to a recent report from the city’s homeless Impact Reduction Program. Of those people, the report states that 18 have transitioned to permanent housing.
According to the legislation and several comments by city officials, the city’s ordinance says it’s “unlawful for any person to camp on public property” under these conditions: 1. When an overnight shelter is available … ; 2. Any encampment on publicly owned property within the city that is deemed a high risk to the public’s health and safety will be posted with no-trespass notices, removed, and cleaned.
As of last weekend, the city did not deem the library encampment high-risk, Bymer said, noting that the city would “ensure it does not become a high-risk environment for anyone.” No signs about trespassing are visible at the property, leading some in the homeless group to question how they could be deemed a public health risk.
Roxanne Culbreth said members of the library encampment have, by and large, not violated any public safety rules, such as toileting in the open. But they have slept there.
“Everyone here is respectful enough to where everybody wakes up at like 6 in the morning, gets their blankets up when school traffic comes through,” Roxanne Culbreth said. “Nobody sees us lying down unless you're coming through here in the middle of the night.”
Wheeler said the area is more of a safe place to sleep than an encampment, as most of the group spend the day inside the library or elsewhere and return only to sleep.
“This is far from a big hot mess right now,” Wheeler said. “People are picking up and going about their days and coming back at night and setting up like this right here. … But this does not stay looking like this during the day. This is what it looks like at night when people come out, and the library is closed.”
Neil Culbreth acknowledged that on occasion members of the group have gone to the bathroom in the open and said that can be a problem. But he argued that, because city officials are no longer providing portable toilets to homeless groups as they have previously, it complicates the picture.
“You stick a bunch of people in a cage and start treating them like animals, eventually they’re going to start acting like them,” he said.
Contact Evey Weisblat at firstname.lastname@example.org or 216-527-3608.
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