Gimme Shelter

by Jeff Sykes

If there is a concerted effort to close down multiple longstanding homeless camps on the outskirts of Greensboro’s downtown then nobody’s talking. Like any good conspiracy theory, there are threads of suspicion that run off in numerous directions without any real motivating nexus.

But in conversations with homeless advocates, law enforcement and neighbors who’ve lived in harmony with discrete camps for years on end a pattern emerges that suggests some force – like one small pebble dropping into a pool of water – has sent ripples of change across more than a dozen homeless camps near downtown.

Property owners have sudden changes of heart about allowing homeless people to camp on vacant or wooded lots. Rumors of camp closures, in addition to actual forced evictions, move small pockets of homeless people, causing large camps – like the one at Freeman Mill Road and Spring Garden Street near the entrance to the Downtown Greenway – to swell. Others peel off, looking for more serene camps like the one just beside Chestnut Street in the Aycock Historic District, bringing unwanted attention to people who’ve lived out of sight and mostly out of mind from the surrounding community.

Residents who’ve cared for homeless people living quietly in the woods are suddenly forced into action on behalf of those society has forgotten for the most part, lest these most vulnerable members of our community get blown away in the sea change taking place as Greensboro continues to redefine itself in hopes of increased economic development.

You might recall Amy Murphy from the article Jeri Rowe wrote about her last summer. Rowe dubbed her “the chicken lady” in a column about her food outreach effort. Murphy collects food from area restaurants and distributes them on Monday mornings from a card table on a downtown corner. Murphy said that as her efforts progressed she noticed one man who would always pick up some food for a friend, a Montagnard man who was unable to come himself. Eventually, the friend suggested Murphy come and meet the man.

One Saturday she went to the tent camp known to be in the dense woods between Chestnut and Church streets, just north of Murrow Boulevard. The camp, known as Fisher Park or Dunleith or Church Street, has been there for at least the six years Murphy knows about. An internet search reveals that the camp has been discussed often at meetings of the Aycock Historic District and written about previously in Yes! Weekly.

On this Saturday evening Murphy ventured into the woods and met the man she’s advocated for these last couple of months. “He had a look in his eyes like I’ve never seen,” Murphy said. “Like a person in a third world country ad that’s starving. It touched my heart.”

The man, who we’ll call Vinh at the request of his advocates, lived deep in the woods, afraid to venture out of his sanctuary around the modified dog house he’s called home for several years. Over the course of a few weeks Murphy advocated on his behalf, attempting to navigate the maze of support agencies in Guilford County, only to find doors closed and pathways blocked due to the man’s lengthy struggle with mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness.

With so many bridges burned, Murphy found it difficult to gain traction. At one point the man’s friend told Murphy that Vinh was subsisting on black snakes and squirrels that he would kill in the nearby woods.

“I’m thinking this is not ok in the city of Greensboro,” Murphy said. “It’s not ok for them to be living in the woods with nobody trying to help him.”

As May’s flowers began to bloom Murphy had begun to make headway – with the help of the Interactive Resource Center and Monarch Behavioral Health – to get Vinh moving in the right direction.

Murphy was bringing Vinh back from a series of appointments about the middle of the month when she decided to check in with a neighbor who lives across Chestnut Street from the camp. Esther Maltby lives with her husband and three children in the 600 block of Chestnut Street, just across from the community garden. She’d known about the camp for years, and her family was responsible for getting Vinh his modified doghouse.

But the two women had never met. Murphy checked in with Maltby that day and discovered that city officials were in the woods inspecting the camp.

An influx of people had arrived at the camp since the middle of March, Maltby said, disrupting the delicate balance between the neighbors and homeless people they went to great lengths to assist. Five to seven long-term campers had lived in those woods for years – she named Kenny and Joseph and Max, known as the mayor. Murphy had been working over the years to get the men housed, while the Maltby family did what they could by providing needed items and access to their water.

“My approach was these guys were respectful, they didn’t cause any problems and they picked up their trash,” Maltby said. “Why run them out? They were fine. We were coexisting as a community.”

Maltby described the Aycock neighborhood as a unique community, very diverse, with students and Section 8 renters living in unison with owners of genteel historic homes. It’s the kind of diverse neighborhood Maltby and her husband wanted to raise their children in, and so they decided to move from the “cookie cutter” neighborhoods along Friendly Avenue.

“We wanted them to be in a more diverse neighborhood that was a better reflection of life as it really is,” Maltby said. “We loved the fact that we lived in the neighborhood and could have several contacts that we could help.”

Both Murphy and Maltby said it was the closure of camps on the other side of downtown that caused the influx to the Dunleith Camp. “It got really out of hand,” Maltby said. “Our neighborhood could support the five people that had been there long term. They understood they had to keep respectful and watch out for the garden.”

City inspectors opened a nuisance complaint on May 14 after visiting the site. Between mid-March and the inspection, Maltby said some of the new campers became unruly, with lots of noise occurring late into the night. The new campers lived close together in an area right behind the community garden, whereas the long-term homeless there had lived solo, deeper in the woods.

“It was a little scary,” Maltby said. Though the family was used to the long-term campers, hearing and seeing the large groups of people come and go led other neighbors to call police.

Community Resource Officer Doug Campbell came for a visit in March. Even though the temperature outside was freezing, Maltby said the stench was amazing.

“I hadn’t realized it was quite that bad,” she said.

Campbell said he had been familiar with people using the camp for years, working with both the residents and the campers since, in his view, the neighborhood was neutral to supportive of the idea of homeless people camping in the woods just a shout away from their front door.

The number of homeless camping there began to increase in the late fall, Campbell said, and he worked with the property owner to ban one couple who consistently caused trouble. A new set of homeless rolled in by early February and the problems lingered. Campbell said the sentiment among neighbors was to force the new campers out and not disrupt the long-term residents of the Dunleith Camp. But achieving that proved impossible.

“The question of who decides who gets to stay or go was the difficult thing to pin down,” Campbell said. “As police we are supposed to be fair and I didn’t want to be seen to be put in that position.”

StreetWatch co-founder Michele Forrest said that the closure in March of a small tent city on South Elm Street caused a final influx to Dunleith/Fisher Park. The closure of a few small camps near businesses in the downtown district added to the problem.

“The latest group to come to Fisher came from smaller camps that closed,” Forrest said. “They were people that were vulnerable and looking for a quiet place that was safe.”

The tent city at Freeman Mill and Spring Garden is known to be rowdy, a place that is much more transient in nature and often the first camp new arrivals gravitate toward. The Dunleith camp’s reputation is much safer. But as more people began looking for new camps, or to escape the growing ranks at Freeman Mill, problems increased at Dunleith.

Forrest knows the homeless community well, often rattling off names and what camp a person moved to or from, and she was careful not to label specific members of the community in any way. But she made it clear that a very few, seriously troubled, people caused much of the problem at Dunleith that led to its closure.

“To the neighborhood association the whole new group of people became a problem, when that was not in fact accurate, in my opinion,” Forrest said. A “small number” of the people who moved to Dunleith had challenges with sanitation issues, she said.

After several conversations with Maltby – who serves as the liaison between the Aycock association and the homeless camp – Forrest and StreetWatch attended a meeting they thought was set up to find ways to make peace and help camp residents live in better harmony with the neighborhood. The same issues arose about moving out the new people, leaving the long-term campers in place. This was also not something StreetWatch could facilitate.

“It put us in an untenable position,” Forrest said. “We minister to everyone and we could not be put in that position. That’s not something we are going to do.”

During the conversations the new campers began to self-regulate, even going so far as to ask one troubled resident to find another place to stay, and a clean-up was organized in mid-May.

“They went above and beyond in the clean-up,” said Officer Campbell. “The campers felt they had moved the problem people out and cleaned up their stuff. I think they got the impression that they would be able to stay if they cleaned up, and they did not.”

By that point the city inspection staff had visited the property and opened a nuisance abatement case. The property owner was notified and the decision was made to post the property “no trespassing.”

“I’ve just been confused by the whole situation,” Forrest said. “They felt like the work that they did was approved of and they were still asked to leave.”

Maltby said she was disappointed that the long-term campers were caught in the process. She said leaders with the neighborhood association wanted everyone out of the woods.

“I was trying to come up with a solution,” Maltby said. “We would have loved for the long-term guys to stay. It’s a no-win situation. It was tough.”

The visible fringe of this ripple became evident last week when Murphy posted on social media photographs of herself, Maltby, Vinh and a few other men cleaning up what was left of the camp after the “no trespassing” signs were tacked up on trees by city staff. But pinning down the drop that started the process is harder to discern.

“I have seen more camp closings in the last year than I have in a really long time,” Forrest said. Over the years she’s put in ministering to homeless people Forrest has observed many camps being closed. Normally it’s businesses or neighbors having issues with the homeless over “little stuff” like noise or not being comfortable with homeless on or near their property. Visible homeless camps make people uncomfortable, she said.

And that’s the case with the large tent city at Freeman Mill and Spring Garden near the entrance to the Downtown Greenway. When the Morehead Park section of the greenway was being built the city removed a camp that was on city property and in the middle of the project’s footprint. Dabney Sanders, project manager for the Downtown Greenway, said some 18 people were removed in 2010 from a heavily wooded area on city property.

“We worked very closely with the homeless advocates, housing and the city to identify federal funding that was allocated to that particular population,” Sanders said. “We we’re really pleased that the city was able to offer permanent housing to those people living there.”

A small group from that camp moved over to the Mitchell property, the site of the Freeman Mill tent city situated underneath a bridge. The camp is well known to advocates, law enforcement and city officials, having been the subject of numerous news reports. Olympic speed skating champion Joey Cheek, a Greensboro native, visited the camp in 2012.

Police Capt. Joel Cranford, until two weeks ago the commander of the Central Patrol Division for the Greensboro Police Department, said the property owner has long tolerated the homeless camp so long as it didn’t cause problems. Police worked with camp residents and advocates to manage issues and allow the camp to exist.

But something changed earlier this year, with the end result being the property owner deciding he could no longer tolerate the camp. The chain of events is unclear – with multiple sources declining to state how the issue first arose – but homeless advocates stated previously that a complaint from the Greenway Committee, and the attention of Councilman Mike Barber, himself only recently reelected to council, played a role in the process.

It’s clear that the city is using a gentle hand to complete the removal of the Freeman Mill tent city, but it’s equally clear that the powers that be want the camp gone.

Barber said in an interview that the city intends to look at ways to increase funding for mental health treatment, which he believes could do much to decrease the homeless population in Greensboro.

“We have a duty to help these people,” Barber said. “It’s not a municipal responsibility but it disgusts me the way the state government has abandoned our mentally ill.”

Barber participated in a homeless count a few years ago, he said.

“Everyone should do that because you will never look at a bridge the same way again,” Barber said. “A bridge is shelter for people that have no other shelter. If you look carefully you will see clothing and sleeping bags tucked under just about all of our bridges. It’s a daily reminder of how fortunate we are and just how many people there are that need help.”

Barber bristled at the idea that he was behind the closure of the Freeman Mill tent city, but he did not hesitate to offer his direct view on the situation there. After taking a tour of the greenway earlier this year and observing the tent city Barber said that he asked what was being done to help the people living there.

“My comment was let’s be proactive and try to get these folks some information, have the police give them brochures,” Barber said. “Let’s work toward eliminating the need for homeless shelters. I think we’ve begun to take these things for granted and we’ve got to start seeing them and helping them.”

Police Capt. Cranford, in a straightforward and in depth interview, said that the issue of closing the camp arose in the past few months following “concerns expressed by area neighborhoods and individuals that were funding projects in the area.” Ultimately, a complaint from the property owner about the camp’s proximity to a radio tower, and the camp’s impact on the surrounding area, led to a meeting with multiple stakeholders to discuss options.

Sanders, from the greenway committee, said police approached her group after the property owner became concerned with the size of the camp, in addition to sanitary and other health concerns. “They were concerned it had gotten out of hand,” Sanders said.

Forrest, of StreetWatch, said word of the camp’s closure came as a surprise. She had been working with the property owners to find ways to keep the camp open, identifying needed clean up and discussing the potential of a privacy fence.

“We were under the impression that we would work out ways for them to be good neighbors,” Forrest said. But after a meeting between the property owners, the police and the Greenway Committee, the decision was made to close the camp.

No matter who took the first step, Capt. Cranford said police are grateful that the property owner has adopted a patient approach to clearing the camp. The decision was made to begin spreading the word about the camp’s impending closure. As opposed to an immediate enforcement of a no trespassing order, police are able to educate campers and attempt to find a solution for them.

“The owners didn’t have to agree to that,” Cranford said. “They could have come to us and asked us to clear the property. They have been great to work with and they have over the many years provided a place for homeless individuals to set up camp and have a place to put shelter. It’s come to a point where they have made a decision, but they are working with us.”

An initial clear date had been set for this month, but that’s been extended until August. “It will take time as they work toward that,” Cranford said. “That’s why we want to work to slowly close the location.”

Police and representatives from the umbrella agency, Partners Ending Homelessness, did a recent walkthrough of the camp. The numbers have dwindled since word spread earlier this year about the camp’s closure. Cranford estimated that about 10 people remained last month.

Police in the central division estimate as many as 15 homeless camps remain in their patrol area. Soon the Freeman Mill camp will not be among their number. Police sources indicated that Partners Ending Homelessness had agreed to work toward finding housing for displaced campers. The city’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year includes $120,000 additional funding for the agency to provide 18 to 20 new housing vouchers.

Forrest expressed concern about what life would be like for homeless people in the downtown Greensboro area after the Freeman Mill camp is closed. She expressed gratitude that the Mitchell family allowed the camp on their property for so long.

“Hundreds of people have lived there in the years that I’ve been doing this,” she said. “The Mitchells – that was compassion. It was amazing and a big deal.” The camp was well situated – close to the Interactive Resource Center, Potters House and downtown churches. “That’s why I think people are in the proximity of downtown to camp, because that’s where you need to be during the day,” Forrest said. “I think that downtown redevelopment is going to make it more and more difficult for homeless people to find places to camp in the downtown area. It’s going to be a challenge. There are a lot of people living there.”

Councilman Barber agreed that some aspects of development downtown were not compatible with homeless camps. His goal is to address the issues that lead to homelessness.

“It’s not satisfactory living,” Barber said. “They have no means of support, no heat. They’ve got no creature comforts. And we can do better.”

Barber hopes the city can provide documents to police that can be given to homeless people explaining how to access services from the 15 or more agencies set up to assist. He hopes to have that in place by Oct. 1.

Barber and Forrest both have a vision that addresses the needs of the homeless population in the downtown area. Both visions result in less homeless downtown.

Forrest has been praying, and meeting with several advocacy groups, hoping to find a way to address the needs of homeless people in a more nurturing environment, away from downtown. She’s prayed for land at the edge of the city, or in the county, where the homeless could be more about nature.

Barber believes that the city has a dual responsibility.

“A greenway that touts commercial development and a pleasant experience for our citizens is not compatible with a homeless camp,” he said. “But we do not abandon these people to further that purpose. Commercial success is not mutually exclusive of social responsibility. We repeatedly fall back on trying to find someone to blame, and a bad person in every discussion. There can be win wins and there can be successful people with a good heart.”