More than shelters needed for Greensboro homeless to have ‘safe place to stay’
On Thursday, millions of Americans will gorge themselves in ritualized thankfulness, then sleep it off in warm bedrooms they own or rent. Earlier this month, three local academics issued the findings from surveys of over 200 Greensboro residents who lack even bedrooms to be thankful for.
A Safe Place to Stay: Combating Homelessness, Police Violence and Jim Crow in Greensboro, is an 85-page report by Guilford College professors Krista Craven, Ph.D., and Sonalini Sapra, Ph.D., and University of North Carolina at Greensboro professor Justin Harmon, Ph.D., researched and presented in collaboration with the Homeless Union of Greensboro. The document argues that affordable permanent housing, rather than shelter beds or other temporary “band-aid” solutions, is what Greensboro’s homeless need most. It also alleges that the city’s homeless are regularly abused by the Greensboro Police Department.
The third and longest of the report’s seven sections, “The Criminalization of Homelessness and Legal Representation,” begins by calling the homeless “more likely to be harassed, cited or arrested by the police departments that enforce ordinances targeting those in poverty (e.g., laws the prohibit vagrancy, panhandling, loitering, sleeping in public).” The section ends with five pages on the police homicide of Marcus Deon Smith, the homeless African-American man fatally hogtied by GPD officers during the 2018 North Carolina Folk Festival.
Co-author Harmon, an assistant professor of Community and Therapeutic Recreation in the UNCG School of Health and Human Sciences, wrote in an email that the report was conceived several months before Smith’s death, but includes it “both out of respect for his life and the need to keep the case in the public eye.” Smith’s death, Harmon stated, “highlights several major problems in Greensboro, including stigma/profiling, the need for mental health resources and training, and government’s unparalleled power in controlling narratives.”
Harmon made those statements in email correspondence with YES! Weekly and Sapra, engaged teaching specialist in the Guilford College Political Science Department. Harmon and Sapra’s co-author Craven, an assistant professor of Justice and Police Studies at Guilford College, is on parental leave through February and was unavailable for an interview.
“I think the Marcus Deon Smith case exemplifies what we are trying to demonstrate in our report around the systematic criminalization of people experiencing homelessness in Greensboro,” Sapra wrote in an email. “His death was completely avoidable had the city taken more effective steps to stop harassing and criminalizing people living on the street.”
Section 3.1 of the report, “Interactions Between Homeless Persons and Law Enforcement Officers in Greensboro,” names 10 GPD officers as having the highest percentage of arrests or citations of homeless African-Americans on “nuisance” offenses. The study’s methodology determined as homeless those whose arrest or citation report listed their permanent address as the Interactive Resource Center (IRC) or Greensboro Urban Ministries (GUM). The officers allegedly targeting black homeless men in the report are Samuel A. Alvarez, William D. Coble, Christopher A. Ferguson, Detraveus K. Forte, Thomas A. Henderson, Matthew L. Hukill, Michael C. Miller, Wayne S. Morrison, Willson J. Moss and Brent R. Sepulveda.
Using the results of public information requests, the report tallied arrests made and citations issued by those 10 officers for violating city statues and ordinances against the following: Standing, Sitting or Lying Upon Highways or Streets; Failure to Leave Premises; Second Degree Trespass; Blocking or impeding streets or sidewalk access; Urinating or defecating in public; Solicitation and Distribution of items in public parking garages and public parking lots; Harassing in Public Places; and Begging or Soliciting Alms.
According to figure 3.4 on page 24, Percentage of Total of Arrests/Citations by Officer of Individuals who are Black and also listed IRC/GUM as their Address, between January 2017 and May 2019, 100% of all individuals arrested or cited by officers Miller and Forte on these eight counts are black and homeless, as are 94.4% of those arrested or cited by Henderson and 85.2% of those cited or arrested by Alvarez on the same counts during the same timeframe.
“That black/homeless males appear to have been singled out for harassment, citation, and arrest is concerning,” wrote Harmon in an email, but he emphasized that the report’s ultimate objective is more than just fault-finding.
“This is nothing more than a resource to help the city move forward in making sweeping changes to help the community get better.”
To that end, the report concludes with “Policy Proposals by the Homeless Union of Greensboro,” quoted verbatim below:
1. We have a right to self-determination: We demand a seat at the table and a say in policies that affect our lives. We call on local government to develop a plan to combat homelessness that is accountable to the needs and priorities of people experiencing homelessness by including them in decision-making processes from the start.
2. Everybody’s got a right to live: We demand an immediate end to police harassment, brutality, and the killing of people. In particular, we call for an immediate end to targeting and violence towards black people, other people of color, LGBTQIA people, people living with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, and other marginalized people. We demand accountability and citizen oversight for police and public employees who violate the rights of citizens.
3. Housing is a human right: We demand safe, decent, and affordable housing fit for human beings, not underfunded Band-Aid services.
4. We have a right to living wages and adequate compensation: We demand living wage employment and real opportunities to escape poverty and homelessness.
5. We have a right to due process: We demand fair treatment before the court for low-income people. This means adequate legal representation in both criminal and civil courts – including evictions – and an end to the money bail system.
6. Healthcare is a human right: We demand adequate access to healthcare and services such as emergency shelters, hygiene facilities, and places that serve food. We demand that all service providers respect our rights, involve clients in decision-making, and have a fair grievance process for clients/guests.
7. We have a right to be treated with dignity: We demand access to non-police emergency services. Non-police personnel are best equipped to deal with and de-escalate crisis related to mental health, drug-use, and medical emergencies.
8. Everyone has a right to a safe place to stay. Homelessness is not a crime: We demand safe and legal places for people experiencing homelessness to sleep without the fear of police harassment and violence.
9. We have a right to be secure in our persons and free from unreasonable searches and seizures: We demand local government adopt policies to protect the rights of people experiencing homelessness.
10. We have a right to equal treatment and opportunity: All people addressing issues related to homelessness ought to commit to anti-racism and anti-oppression work and view it as central to that work.
In an email, Sapra described the report as originating in an April 2018 conversation between Harmon and Marcus Hyde of the Homeless Union of Greensboro.
“They talked about the possibility of doing more systematic research on homelessness in Greensboro. Justin reached out to me and asked if I was interested. He convened a meeting in the early summer of 2018 with faculty from both Guilford College and UNC Greensboro. In the end, students from Guilford and UNCG collected the data, and the report was compiled by Krista, Justin, myself, with input from the Homeless Union of Greensboro.”
Harmon described Sapra and Craven as using a methodology called Participatory Action Research (PAR).
“That methodology is very time-consuming, but its purpose (and value) is to draw from the expertise and preferences of those whom are the object of investigation (i.e., those experiencing homelessness).”
“We touched base with the Homeless Union and the Greensboro Urban Ministry at several points during the research process and also engaged in collaborative data analysis with the Homeless Union,” Sapra elaborated.
Hyde described the process further.
“We wanted to do an in-depth survey of folks on the streets to learn more about their priorities, so we began doing surveys on our own as a group. Then, I brought up the idea of doing it with academics, and the group got excited. Sonalini, Krista and Justin were the three who were willing and able to put the hard work into doing a community-driven survey.”
Hyde also explained why the report devotes so much space to police harassment.
“The number of times the same officers were named by participants is shocking. They are known problems that the police department has covered for over a long period of time, Samuel Alvarez being one. He was involved in the Jose Charles case, the Zared Jones case, and other cases of police misconduct and people on the streets have named him many times as an especially cruel officer who goes beyond his legal authority to harass and harm black people and people experiencing homelessness.”
Hyde said that while he appreciated the coverage other media outlets have given to the issue of alleged police harassment, he’s been disappointed by the lack of attention to the report’s final recommendations.
“We offered a litany of policies that would both reduce homelessness in Greensboro and improve conditions for people experiencing it. Housing is the only long-term solution to homelessness, and it’s also – as the report indicates – cheaper than keeping people in a cycle of shelters, emergency rooms and jail.”
Hyde also repeated a point brought up by Beth Mckee-Huger, retired executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, at the Nov. 12 presentation of the report at McGirt-Horton Library.
“Voters in Greensboro passed a $25 million affordable housing bond in 2016, but they haven’t prioritized low-income housing, which is needed the most. Instead, they dump a lot of money into middle-income housing, which may be $800-$900 per month, and because they leverage a lot of private capital in the process, the city likes to celebrate those developments, even when they are placed in low-income neighborhoods where the pre-existing housing is cheaper than the new ‘affordable’ housing is being built. Low-income housing is what’s needed most, but the city isn’t prioritizing it.”
In a text last Thursday, Michelle Kennedy, executive director of the Interactive Resource Center and At-large Representative to the Greensboro City Council, appeared to agree with at least some of the report’s findings.
“Yes, we lack affordable housing options,” Kennedy wrote. “The City is moving forward with partners for a large scale Permanent Supportive Housing development.” She appeared to agree with the report’s findings on the burden imposed on Greensboro’s homeless population by court costs and the cash bail system, stating those expenses “are especially hard on folks we [the IRC] serve.”
Kennedy also stated that Greensboro lacks adequate shelter beds. “Our shelter system is a high barrier, which creates difficulties for those with the highest acuity.”
Of the arrest and citation figures, Kenney texted that “our homeless community is disproportionately black and male, so any data around homeless [and] police interactions will show disproportionality.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.