On the streets between despair and ecstasy

I was considering writing a column about walking up Elm Street early Sunday afternoon from the Mellow Mushroom to Center City Park and how our family crossed paths with two homeless guys sleeping in doorways and three panhandlers begging for change before we actually got to the park and saw about a dozen homeless people being fed by volunteers with blue coolers.

It was quite the experience for my son and his little cousin who was visiting from Charlotte. After a fine meal and gift exchange we decided to walk up the street to the park to burn off some calories. I didn’t envision having to shepherd two elementary school aged boys through vomit and other human waste on the sidewalk.

I was going to write that column but then I saw the Buzzfeed list Monday about how great Greensboro is during the holidays and I figured I better get with the booster program. Action, Greensboro, indeed. I figured if I actually wrote that column I’d be accused of “venting my spleen” or being “a Debbie downer”.

When I began working in Greensboro almost two years ago I had to adjust to the constant stream of down on their luck types who would ask me for money on Elm and McGee streets. At first I was always “sure man here’s a few bucks” but sometime in the early summer of 2014 I’d had enough. Now I either keep my eyes to the ground or just shake my head and say “no man, I don’t have anything.”

That’s what I did Monday night when I was coming out of the convenience store on McGee Street. After hitting the ATM on Eugene Street, my tire began making a clickety-clack sound. I couldn’t see anything on visual inspection so I went to the store and handled my business. The guy that runs the place is super nice and I decided to ask him if he had a shop flashlight or anything I could borrow for a minute. He had one in his Jeep parked on the street and as we exited the store a voice to my right said “hey man, can you spare a lil’ something?”

I turned to say “no, man I don’t have …” but the shop owner cut me off.

“Hey brother, we don’t do that in front  of the spot,” he said aggressively.

“Oh, I’m sorry man,” the gray hoodie and  baggie jean-clad man said and scurried off  around the corner.

Whatever was in my tire must have worked its way out by the time I parked and so I took the flashlight back and headed to my ultimate destination. It was there that I ended up seated next to a downtown restaurant manager who has very strong feelings about the homeless and panhandlers plaguing the scene. He’s one of the up and comers in the Greensboro restaurant scene and happens to live in a downtown loft above street-front businesses. He comes and goes to his humble abode via an alleyway between two buildings. It’s dark at night and lined with trashcans, a fence, and often a homeless person taking a dump, smoking crack or passed out.

So he says. He, too, got fed up some months ago and began telling the homeless dudes that if they were there when he came back in 90 seconds that he was going to dump a bucket of water on them. We’ve had long conversations in the past about his rationale for using a bucket of water. In his mind, there’s nothing illegal about dousing someone in water. He’s done it to them outside the restaurant and he does it to them if they’re impeding access to his home.

I was reminded of Council member Mike Barber’s statement in 2014 when I reported a significant story about shifting camps of homeless populations on the outskirts of downtown. Seems that homeless flooded a once isolated camp near Fisher Park after the Tent City near Spring Garden Street and the Freeman Mill overpass was shut down.

“A greenway that touts commercial development and a pleasant experience for our citizens is not compatible with a homeless camp,” Barber said at the time.

My restaurant friend feels the same way about homeless and panhandlers in the Center City, which our town’s leaders claim is the economic development engine of the times.

But you can’t just feed the buzz with listicles on some user-generated website.

Another downtown restaurant closed its doors last week. There’s a sign on the door at Spice Cantina that says they hope to reopen next month “with a fresh new look.” Greensboro gave the business a $100,000 economic development grant to help get the place up and running. Despite the assist, foot traffic just never quite developed.

Some say the city has too many restaurants and only about 10 percent of the downtown residents needed to support what’s already in place. Either way, downtown remains in flux and in need of strong, fresh leadership. !