Homeless issues dominate Greensboro City Council meeting
No mention of mayor’s controversial code of conduct
Homelessness was the theme of the Dec. 3 town hall meeting of the Greensboro City Council, during which no attempt was made at enforcing the controversial “code of conduct” restrictions recently introduced by Mayor Nancy Vaughan.
Opening ceremonial items included a resolution proclaiming Dec. 21 as National Homeless Persons Memorial Day. Three hours later, the meeting ended with District 1’s Sharon Hightower disagreeing with District 3’s Justin Outling after he criticized the use of the term “Jim Crow” in the subtitle of the Safe Place to Stay report on Homelessness in Greensboro.
“Black people are not a monolith, and a lot of people who are black find it offensive to equate things like slavery and Jim Crow with things that are divorced from that context and that time,” Outling said.
Sharon Hightower responded by saying the use of the term “Jim Crow” did not bother her.
“While I hear what you’re saying, I think that the title has an important meaning, although where it says ‘Jim Crow,’ maybe it should have said ‘racism,’ because the city has a race problem that we don’t talk about. Once I read this, I may find that they had real reasons for titling it in such a way, if only to get your attention. But I think that dealing with it is what we need to do. I can’t say that I’m at all offended by it just yet.”
At no time did Mayor Vaughan admonish against criticizing city employees by name or discussing matters under litigation, as she did at the Oct. 3 and Nov. 6 meetings.
“In recent months, there’s been much talk about not specifically calling out individual members of the police department in this forum,” said Ryan Tardiff of the Homeless Union of Greensboro. “I’m glad that the most problematic elements have been shelved, and that we can once again call Samuel Alvarez a piece of trash.”
Alvarez is one of the Greensboro Police officers named in the “A Safe Place to Stay” report for allegedly harassing homeless people of color. The Homeless Union’s Marcus Hyde also named Alvarez as one of several officers who “harass and harm people who are black.”
Neither Hyde nor Tardiff were interrupted or cut off. Neither was the far more confrontational Brian Watkins. Watkins spent much of his time at the podium condemning Rhinoceros Times editor John Hammer, whom the activist accused of “censorship” by reporting Watkins’ own record as a registered sex offender, while allegedly not reporting sex crimes committed by the police, such as the 2014 incident that resulted in officer J. W. Way’s firing for indecent exposure.
Watkins also demanded to know why the council has not watched police body camera videos of the 2016 arrest of Zared Jones. (The city is appealing a judge’s gag order against speaking about the contents of those videos.) At the Sept. 3 meeting, both Hightower and At-Large Representative and Interactive Resource Center director Michelle Kennedy expressed their intention of viewing the footage, which the council is allowed to watch but not discuss. On Tuesday, Hightower explained why she had not watched it.
“We didn’t look at it,” she told Watkins, “because I took the position that if I can’t talk about it, why am I gonna see it? People expect you to see things and be transparent. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that’s why Sharon has not looked at it, because when she does, she wants to be able to say, yes I’ve seen it, this is my opinion on it.” When Watkins offered to pay her fine for violating the gag order, Hightower said. “It’s not the fine; it’s the bars. Sharon gets claustrophobic, and she ain’t going to jail.”
Under the previously announced code of conduct for public speakers, this conversation might have been off-limits, as it concerned a matter under litigation. Hester Petty of Democracy Greensboro addressed that prohibition, stating that the “town hall” format allowing unlimited public comment, introduced in 2018, was for the council to listen to the concerns of their constituents. “But some of you became tired of certain issues being addressed by the public, especially complaints about conduct by specific police officers, and requests that the city council do something about the death of Marcus Smith, a homeless black man who died while in the custody of white Greensboro Police officers.”
“My suggestion is to stop making new rules of conduct that no one understands and just sit and listen to the public comments. Madame Mayor, your new rules have only added to the confusion during these meetings, and if you have not gotten rid of them yet – I don’t remember hearing them tonight – I would greatly appreciate it if you would remove them from the code of conduct.”
Forrest Hinton of the Working Class and Homeless Organization Alliance (WHOA), accused the council of being “bought and paid for” by developers such as Koury Corporation and Kotis Properties, Inc. He then alleged that “2017 city council documents” show that Outling, Hightower, District 4 Representative Nancy Hoffman, At-Large Representative Marikay Abuzuaiter and Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, as well as Mayor Vaughan, each received donations ranging from $1,250 to $3,600 from Koury and Kotis employees, and/or Marty Kotis himself.
“How much in campaign funds does it take to become a financial concubine to Koury or Kotis? Based on these numbers, not much.”
Billy Belcher, also of WHOA, called for “accessible public bathrooms, shower facilities and water fountains, all the necessities of basic hygiene.” The “houseless community,” he said, “has demanded free and expanded public transit, but instead, the buses are going to see a raise in fare over the next two years, and you are budgeting for a downtown trolley and some parking decks.”
WHOA member Sean Brandt echoed these sentiments, calling the trolley “a vanity project” and demanding “a fully funded public transportation system aimed at meeting everyone’s needs.”
The final group of speakers discussed A Safe Place to Stay: Combating Homelessness, Police Violence and Jim Crow in Greensboro, the 85-page report by Guilford College professors Krista Craven and Sonalini Sapra and University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor Justin Harmon, researched in collaboration with the Homeless Union of Greensboro.
Along with Homeless Union members Hyde and Tardiff, these speakers included Sapra, who listed “lack of affordable housing, low wages, our eviction crisis and systemic inequality” as factors behind Greensboro’s homeless crisis. “While improving shelter access is an important short-term goal, we believe that the most important intervention would be for the city to adopt a more comprehensive affordable housing policy.”
Hyde discussed two policies, which he said the council had already discussed. “One is written consent to protect the homeless from unreasonable searches, which I know you’ve had a work session on, and which in Durham, Fayetteville and Asheville have decreased racial disparities in policing and led to less unnecessary arrests for quality-of-life crimes. The other is a non-police emergency service program for crisis intervention, for which money has been budgeted, but which hasn’t been rolled out into a plan.” Hyde requested that the council meet with the three academics who wrote the report to explore these issues in a work session further.
Tardiff also stressed the importance of non-police emergency services crisis intervention. “Marcus Smith would be alive today if he’d come across skilled mental health practitioners rather than a police force that sees itself as a hammer looking for nails.”
The council responded to the Safe Place to Stay speakers, rather than listening in silence as they had done with those from WHOA. “I appreciate the study being done,” said Kennedy, who called the problems cited in the reported complex. “The only thing about it that is simple is that we don’t need more shelter beds. Shelter beds are a band-aid on a severed artery.”
She agreed that the only solution to homelessness in Greensboro is affordable housing. “We are trying to move forward on a permanent supportive housing model that does provide for the lower socio-economic rung to receive housing that also has the supports that they need to be successful in the long run.”
Kennedy suggested that those responsible for the report “walk across this courtyard and say these same things to the Guilford County Commissioners and ask them to carry their share of the water on issues like this, because the City of Greensboro can’t carry the load for the entirety of Guilford County even though we’ve been asked to and have for way too long.”
Mayor Vaughan spoke of a pilot program for eviction prevention that will be finalized sometime in January. “It’s being worked on with the housing coalition, legal aid and UNCG, and hopefully funded via a benefactor through the community foundation. If it works, hopefully, this city will contribute to that.”
Vaughan also said that Requests for Proposals had gone out for the Non-Police Emergency program. “I think we’re ready to make an award for that and maybe be able to talk about what that program is going to look like.”
The mayor was not entirely uncritical of the report.
“I know the students at Guilford College interviewed a lot of people at Urban Ministries and the IRC, but I noticed that the questions didn’t really allow for positive responses. There was a lot of really good information that’s come out of it, but I just wish there was a bit of ability for a positive response to some of its questions. But I think there are great opportunities for us to work together and to come up with maybe some new policy. Thank you for putting this together. We will certainly read this and give it a lot of thought.”