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Homeless camps cleared as Ole Asheboro begins renewal

by Jordan Green

Back in June Cara Michele Forrest received a call from an employee of the Greensboro Housing and Community Development Department, enlisting her to inform a group of homeless squatters living in a wooded area near the southern flank of the city’s thriving downtown that they would have to pack up their bedding and move on.

Forrest, who has gotten to know the city’s homeless population as a member of the evangelical Christian outreach group Night Watch, visited the tract with a friend and two Greensboro patrol officers, and found an encampment with multiple sites under a low canopy of trees. As she wrote in her blog (chosenfast.blogspot.com), she estimated that only one or two of the sites were currently occupied. She later located a man who had fashioned a shelter with a tarp, and confirmed that he and another squatter were staying there.

Development is pressing in, and neighborhood revitalization is the order of the day. The waves of change come from both the north, where downtown’s growth continues, and from the Ole Asheboro neighborhood to the south ‘— once the home of wealthy merchants and judges, where African-American residents have fought to reclaim the former prestige of a community that went into a long period of decline after World War II.

The property in question, a pastoral stretch of mown grass fringed by the woods that have become a haven to some of Greensboro’s homeless, was once the site of a Salvation Army shelter. There’s nothing left of the old building but a set of concrete steps. The land has been owned by the Greensboro Redevelopment Commission for about a decade, said Dan Curry of the city’s Housing and Community Development Department. Situated to the right of the off-ramp from Lee Street to the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive overpass it’s the first visible piece of land at the gateway to the Ole Asheboro neighborhood.

Forrest is part of an effort endorsed by the Greensboro City Council to end homeless in the next ten years by focusing resources on providing housing for the most hardcore homeless, and then bringing services to them once they have a stable place of residence. She has noticed that the number of people coming in for free meals every Wednesday at Grace Community Church, where she is a member, is on the rise. Many of their needs currently go unmet.

‘“I was thinking of how the number of homeless folks in downtown Greensboro is shrinking day by day as the places they stay disappear to make room for all this new development,’” she wrote in her blog. ‘“And frankly, there’s nowhere for them to go. Our shelters are full. We don’t have enough permanent supportive housing. The existing programs have wait lists. Our treatment programs for mental illness and addiction are woefully inadequate. We do still have jail. But apparently that’s overcrowded, too.’”

Returning to her car after that first visit to the homeless encampment, Forrest said she turned to one of the patrolman and shook her head.

‘“It’s getting harder and harder to be homeless in downtown Greensboro,’” she said.

She remembered the patrolman looking back at her ‘“like I wasn’t real bright,’” and saying, ‘“Well, I think that might be the point.’”

Forrest has talked to one of the men at the camp, explaining his options for getting housing and medical care. By Friday, July 7, he had not followed up on her advice, she reported. Two days later, she went back to the camp at the southwest corner of Lee Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and found the woods cleared out. A battered blue tarp that once provided shelter from the rain lay in a heap in the mown area. Near the roadside lay rows of cut saplings. Other than the tarp, it would be hard for someone unaware of the tract’s history to detect much evidence of human habitation. One patch of exposed dirt presented a few artifacts: a pair of steak knives, a silver fork, a condom wrapper and an unopened packet of Chinese duck sauce.

‘“It’s freaky when you go there and see people’s belongings, and come back 48 hours later and everything’s gone,’” Forrest said later. ‘“That’s somebody’s life. That could be me. I know it’s squatting but they wouldn’t be staying there if we had other alternatives and if we were doing what we needed to. To some extent, I have to blame myself.’”

In the past year a number of properties, including the site of the former Salvation Army shelter, have been transferred into the possession of the non-profit Greensboro Housing Development Partnership, said Greensboro Redevelopment Commission chair Joe Wood.

New Zion Missionary Baptist Church is negotiating a development plan with the partnership for the property after submitting a winning bid, Curry said. Although a church is set to become the developer, it is unclear whether this patch of real estate will be a place where homeless people find refuge again.

A final plan for redevelopment of Ole Asheboro published in March 2004 calls for rezoning the property from commercial to mixed use, ‘“to accommodate residential, commercial, office and neighborhood businesses.’”

‘“We’re working closely with the [city] code enforcement people to clean up some of the houses that are not being kept up by absentee landlords,’” Wood said. ‘“If you are letting the property slide into disrepair it does not do anything for the overall feel of the neighborhood. [The plan is to] build a combination of single-family homes and affordable housing. Another thing about working with code enforcement is it won’t be desirable to come in and put in private money if the other houses are rundown. We’re trying to protect the investment of the taxpayers of Greensboro.’”

Wood added that the old Salvation Army property is the gateway of the Ole Asheboro neighborhood, and its development is being modeled after the nearby Southside Neighborhood.

‘“Southside is the showpiece that everybody looks at,’” he said. ‘“We want this neighborhood to be a showpiece too.’”

The tidy brick town homes of the Southside Neighborhood development just a block north of Lee Street give a premonition of what might replace the old ground of the Salvation Army shelter. Townhomes start at $210,000, and small storefronts doing trade in energy drinks, cellular phones and hair-styling open onto the street.

An aerial rendering of the tract at the southwest corner of Lee Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive showing what the neighborhood is supposed to look like in the future depicts a row of townhouses with parking in the back similar to the Southside Neighborhood, as well as a larger building set behind the townhouses. [Calls to the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church requesting comment about plans for the property were not returned at press time.]

‘“The more that we develop, it really is pushing homeless people and low-income people further out,’” Forrest said in a recent interview. ‘“I don’t know if there’s anything you can do about it. It’s a bittersweet thing. You get something nice and new for the city, but poor people don’t necessarily get to be part of it.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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