Solving the homeless quandary — it’s not that simple

Published 12:10 am Saturday, July 8, 2023

SALISBURY — Homelessness in the city and the surrounding area currently reflects a national trend, which is a rising number of homeless people on the streets, including here in Salisbury.

When officials recently dispersed an existing homeless camp, as they have done before, it sent many of the homeless population back into the public eye, as they parked shopping carts filled with belongings up and down East Innes Street.

After they were asked to move off of private property where they had been camped, in some instances for months, many of the homeless said they were frustrated and upset.

“Where do they want us to go?” asked Angie, who has spoken to the Post in the past. “They tell us we have to leave one place but they don’t tell us where we are supposed to go.” She, her fiancé and her father, Joe, have been on the streets for a long time. She has tried to get help from the Veteran’s Administration for Joe, but there are barriers in the way of assistance.

Rowan Helping Ministries is one of 35 organizations that offers some form of assistance to the homeless, but as a shelter, it has rules to protect those it houses, including no drugs or alcohol, and no violence. Even for those not actually in the shelter, food and showers are available — to a point.

“Sometimes if you don’t get there early enough, the line is so long you can’t get a shower before they close,” Angie said. “I’ve tried to go apply for jobs, but they tell me the don’t hire the homeless. I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to do.”

“And why can the city spend $13 million on a park (Bell Tower Green) and not give any money to the homeless?” asked Rebecca, who was sent years ago to Salisbury for addiction treatment from Fayetteville.

To get some answers to those questions and try to understand what the city offers the homeless population, the Post sat down with Mayor Karen Alexander and the Salisbury Police Homeless Liaison Dennis Rivers.

“I want first of all to say that as mayor and council, we are charged with upholding and protecting the health, safety and welfare of our residents and our visitors,” said Alexander. “And I believe that we are compassionate and understanding of the plight of the homeless, and have shown and will continue to show that we will do everything within our power to help them. But if you have, for instance, people using our waterways and creeks as their bathrooms, it is not just affecting the people who live there, but children playing in the creeks and water that is now carrying disease affecting nearby land. So the impact is beyond just the camps.”

She added that no other city the size of Salisbury has an actual liaison like Rivers, and the city voted to match the grant that covers his salary because they believe in taking action.

Rivers explained that there is a consortium of 35 different organizations or programs set up to offer various levels of assistance, “but there is a responsibility to take advantage of, take part in those programs,” said Alexander.

As for money that comes to the city to help with the homeless issue, investing in programs is not the same as putting money directly into the hands of the homeless, which is what some of them expect. It is a misunderstanding of how funding works.

“I heard the city got $22 million for the homeless, so where is my money?” one woman asked.

Any money the city gets to assist with the homeless population goes into programs and services, explained Alexander. It does not mean the city is handing out checks to the homeless.

In addition, Alexander provided detailed clarification that the city did not spend $13 million on Bell Tower Green. According to Parks and Recreation Director Nick Aceves, “Once the park is finished, the city will buy it for $700,000. Half of that amount will be provided by the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Grant. This is a state-funded grant program that cities and counties can request grants from in order to construct or maintain public parks and maintain beaches.”

Alexander focused on the city’s desire to be compassionate, and to understand that for the most part, people do not choose to be homeless, but find themselves there for a variety of reasons. Rivers, she said, has “done yeoman’s work on this, helping them get IDs and get into the shelter and work on finding jobs. He is out every day, I think, meeting people and trying to connect them with resources.”

“What we do is talk with people about their goals, and then find them the resources and plan the steps that can help them reach those goals,” said Rivers. One of the homeless population pointed out that they wanted a car, and asked how to go about getting one.

“That’s an example of a goal,” said Rivers. “But it’s not where you start. You need to have insurance on a car, which has to be paid every month. You need to buy gas and be able to maintain the car. So where we start is by talking about how to reach that goal — getting a job, getting housing that will allow them to be present for a job every day, saving money to buy a vehicle and pay for the accompanying costs. It won’t happen overnight, but nothing does.”

Rivers said he understands the frustration of those who are homeless, but he also believes they have to meet him halfway.

“It is important for them to realize that they need to do their part,” he said. “We can provide all the assistance there is, but when they turn us down, when they refuse to participate or don’t want to follow the rules at the shelter or in the programs, it ties our hands. I also think people believe they have to be in the shelter to get benefits from programs, and they don’t. There are all different ways we can help.”

“And that is what we want people to understand as well,” said Alexander. “We are compassionate. We do have programs that many other cities do not have. We are making every effort to help. But we are also responsible for the health, well-being and safety of all of our residents, not just any particular segment.”

Other towns have sent homeless to Salisbury, often without notification, to either partake of the services or to join the homeless population here, moving the problem off their plate. An official in Fayetteville, who would not speak on the record, did confirm that people have been sent to Salisbury after they are given a choice of where to go.

During the recent move of homeless off of private property, many said police offered them one-way bus tickets to anywhere they wanted to go.

“That’s not accurate,” said Rivers. “We do ask if they have family somewhere that they would like to reconnect with or who might help. If they tell us, we will contact the family member to work through it. Not just say hey, we’re bringing them to you, but find if they can help or want to reconnect. If not, and they want to go elsewhere, we research first to see if there are programs available and we call to see if there is space. We don’t just buy a ticket somewhere.”

In addition, a number of citations were recently issued after members who transport belongings in shopping carts were repeatedly notified they needed to get rid of the carts because they are stolen property and the businesses are complaining about the theft.

“We are working to find a way to help them secure their belongings, and if they go into the shelter or a program, we absolutely do that because we understand — this is all they have,” said Rivers. “But the police are also charged with enforcing the laws. We will give warnings as many times as we possibly can, but at some point, we have to enforce the laws.”

Both Alexander and Rivers acknowledge that the number of homeless has grown. In 2020, the last time a traditional count was conducted, 180 homeless individuals were counted in Rowan County.” Traditional counts were not conducted in 2021 or 2022 due to the pandemic, but a count was done in 2023. When Rivers came on board, the Homeless Task Force was able to again conduct a count with a more accurate representation due to his efforts. The count was 238 homeless, which included those living in shelters and transitional housing. The increase, it has been surmised, was due to rent/utility moratoriums, the restart of evictions, increased rental rates and inflation and combined with increases in poor mental health and substance use.

“We have to balance our compassion with applying requirements and regulations equally,” said Alexander. She has, she noted, talked with Greg Edds, chairman of the Rowan County commissioners, about the human services aspect, and the city’s health department is working on a full plan of how to use some of the money from the opioid settlement to address addiction among the homeless, so the city is continuing its efforts to help.

Other communities in Rowan County have also reached out to city officials to talk about the homeless problem that seems to be spreading, trying to be proactive in planning.

Meanwhile, Friday afternoon, Angie and her fiancé were back in view after being routed out from a spot again.

“The police originally told us we could be in one place, then they came back and said we had to leave,” she said. Her father, Joe, was arrested for trespassing and jailed, and Angie was worried about his getting through the night. As an alcoholic with Alzheimers, she was afraid he wouldn’t be able to tell officers he needs medication for the withdrawals.

“We don’t argue with the cops, we do what they ask us to do,” she said. “I know they don’t want us in public view, but even when we go out of it, they make us move. I just wish we knew where we could go that would be OK.”