Where to now? Salisbury homeless camp broken up, residents diverted to resources

Published 12:10 am Thursday, June 8, 2023

SALISBURY — A Bendix Drive homeless encampment was cleared by Salisbury public works and police on Monday, but it’s just one of many of its kind the city is attempting to clean up.

Dennis Rivers is the Salisbury Police Department’s homeless liaison and victim and witness advocate. Before the cleanup, Rivers spent several days with those living at the sites to direct them toward resources that address chronic homelessness.

Rivers indicated that the encampments form in various places that can be public or private property. With Bendix Drive, the community sprung out of the right of way. As for another camp community on South Jake Alexander Boulevard, private development exposed the hidden site.

“A private owner is about to do some construction in the area,” Rivers said. “We came out to investigate if there were any homeless people in the area. Once we did, we made contact with them and talked with them about resources that we could connect them to through partnerships we have.”

Rivers mentioned that his efforts usually try to guide the individuals to a shelter or reunite with their families, sometimes even families in other municipalities and states.

“If possible, we get them transportation back to their families, either with a bus ticket or train ticket,” Rivers said.

Getting them off the property is a process.

“Technically, they are trespassing, so we make sure we have a trespassing order in place,” Rivers said. “First, we want to get them off the property and get them to a safe shelter. From that, we explain to them about cleaning up the property and getting their belongings and everything. We try to give them three days, normally. Sometimes, it’s 24 hours. It just depends on how much stuff has accumulated.”

Given the extensive contents at the site on South Jake Alexander, Rivers indicated that they would give the vacated individuals up to three days to reclaim their belongings.

Rivers remarked that he has never had to remove anyone from a property forcibly, and the dialogue they endeavor to establish is adequate, if not directing them toward resources, at least to get them off the property.

Tents are a misnomer for the type of communities that spring up at these sites. Most of the shelter is makeshift and created with tarps instead of a standard tent.

“A lot of these tents are just heavy-duty tarps, and (homeless people) can afford them,” Rivers said.

Risks are high at the sites, as Rivers pointed out. The residents are off the beaten path and frequently have no way of calling for help in an emergency. Evidence of drug and alcohol use is commonly observed after the sites are vacated, and since many of them are in the woods, encounters with wildlife are also possible.

Getting the homeless people back into society and safety is Rivers’ goal, but where can they go when they leave the tent site?

One place in Salisbury is Rowan Helping Ministries, a second-chance homeless shelter that provides basic necessities like warm showers and hot meals for homeless people. They also try to establish communication with residents of tent communities before they are forced out of the site.

“We go out every Friday and try to build relationships with people living in tent communities, or wherever we may find them,” Rowan Helping Ministries Executive Director Kyna Grubb said. “We provide them with transportation to get them to family members and invite them to come into the shelter or refer them to other shelters and get enrolled in housing programs. Some we have taken straight from tents into housing.”

Grubb indicated that the goal is to help them navigate out of the situation before getting “to the point where (Rivers) is having to shut them down and code enforcement comes in.”

Preemptively addressing the issue proved fruitful for one homeless person in the case of the Bendix Drive camp. Rowan Helping Ministries Outreach to Housing Coordinator Dianne Bruce explained that one person from the Bendix Drive site had entered the shelter.

Bruce and Grubb acknowledged that being effective the first time could be challenging.

“We give them the opportunity because we know that, for now, that is their home,” Bruce said. “Even though they know they are trespassing on private property, this is my home, and these are my personal things. We approach them in a way to let them know that we are not here to hurt them. We’re here to help you and get you connected to the resources you need.”

Addressing homelessness is a complex issue that requires complex solutions.

“There can be many reasons that a person is homeless,” said Raeshawn Palmer, the Rowan Helping Ministries director of community relations. “Some prefer to live on the street.”

For now, Palmer, Bruce and Grubb want Rowan’s homeless population to know that there is a place for them, no matter where they are on their journey.

“What we try to do is build that relationship,” Palmer said. “We want them to know when they are ready, they can come, but if they need something while they prefer to live in the streets, they can get a shower, clean clothing or a meal, or medical attention (at Rowan Helping Ministries).”

One success story is Ryan Herndon.

Herndon gets social security monthly, but it wasn’t enough to get settled into a place. He spent some time living in East Spencer in a tent on private property. It was not a makeshift tent, like the communities that were disrupted earlier in the week in Salisbury, but he was still living in the woods.

Herndon indicated that a tent community would not be conducive for him because of the drama that can boil over. He prefers to be by himself.

“I don’t do well with other people, so I try to keep my distance,” Herndon said. “I just can’t handle the chaos … I’d rather stay by myself than deal with crazy crap.”

Thanks to help from Rowan Helping Ministries, Herndon has found himself a more stable home, and it’s affordable. Finding affordable housing has presented itself as the most significant obstacle for Herndon to find a permanent place to live.

“You have these landlords charging too much money for deposit and rent when you are on fixed income,” Herndon said. “How the heck are you going to get a place?”

After a visit to Rowan Helping Ministries, Herndon found his answer. Getting people into long-term housing solutions is just one way the people at Rowan Helping Ministries are helping combat the plight of homelessness for those living with it in Rowan County.

The shelter is located at 226 North Long Street in Salisbury. The number is 704-637-6838.