Fighting for the right to exist

August 7, 2018

Ryan Tardiff and Lindsay Caesar report on a new ordinance that limits “panhandling” in a North Carolina city — and why the Homeless Union of Greensboro is vowing to fight it.

GREENSBORO IS known as one of North Carolina’s most progressive cities, with the City Council and mayor’s office all dominated by Democrats.

Despite this reputation, however, Greensboro’s treatment of the city’s most vulnerable communities is anything but progressive. While the city builds multimillion-dollar parking garages and forms partnerships with corporations, those who are homeless or in extreme poverty are being criminalized and erased.

But the Homeless Union of Greensboro, comprised of people experiencing homelessness and supporters, is devoted to addressing the crisis of poverty in the city.

In late April, the Greensboro City Council voted to repeal an ordinance under which panhandling had to take place under a licensing system — people were required to undergo a police background check and get a so-called “privilege license” in order to ask for money on the streets.

Homeless Union of Greensboro supporters protest a reactionary ordinance
Homeless Union of Greensboro supporters protest a reactionary ordinance

While this repeal might appear to be a small victory, the City Council immediately voted on a new ordinance that also served to regulate the speech and behavior of panhandlers, this time under the guise of “aggressive solicitation.” The replacement ordinance includes restrictions that clearly targeted the homeless community, without explicitly saying so.

The ordinance makes it a crime to “block or impede sidewalk access” or use “threatening gestures.” People were banned from asking for money within 20 feet of an ATM. It also applied to people who engage in “peddling,” “itinerant merchanting” and “intentional touching.”

All of these behaviors are already limited by current laws. The real purpose of this ordinance is to control the activities of homeless people.

AT AN April City Council meeting, the ordinance passed 6-3 and went into immediate effect because of the “supermajority” voting in favor of it. A few weeks later, council member Sharon Hightower changed her vote, meaning that the ordinance no longer had supermajority approval — so it couldn’t take effect until the vote was repeated by the City Council.

But at a subsequent meeting, City Attorney Tom Carruthers informed the council members that this ordinance would likely not survive a legal challenge.

In the following weeks, the city spent $32,000 to hire the Parker Poe law firm to draft a new ordinance to avoid potential lawsuits resulting from the unconstitutionality of the aggressive solicitation law.

This new ordinance, which the city says has a better chance of standing up in court, was finalized on the same day as the City Council vote on it, giving council members only a few hours to read a 700-page document.

The new ordinance, without explicitly saying so, targets panhandlers by the inclusion of measures to ban “harassing conduct” in public spaces, solicitation in any public parking lots and parking garages, and standing, sitting or lying on traffic medians.

On July 25, the new version of the ordinance was brought up for a vote at a City Council meeting. Following a period of public comment where 17 speakers opposed the bill and just two speakers — both campaign contributors to one of the council members supporting the legislation — spoke in favor, a motion to delay the vote was defeated by a margin of 5-4.

After a recess, the same 5-4 majority returned to the council chambers with a plan in tow. According to council member Michelle Kennedy, those in support of the ordinance met in private without consulting her or other council members.

The pro-ordinance council members arrived ready to vote on not just the amended bill, but the bill specifically criticized as being blatantly unconstitutional. Both passed by the same 5-4 margin. Because of the earlier vote on the unamended version, that ordinance has now become law, despite the majority claiming they intend to repeal it at the earliest convenience.

Despite claims by City Council members that they care about the homeless, the city of Greensboro is more concerned about its reputation than its most vulnerable community members.

THE ORDINANCES — and the maneuvers used to pass them — are an illustration of the erasure of “unwanted” people from public life, and of the use of the law to target those who need assistance.

They also demonstrate the ways in which public officials care more for their own interests than those of their constituents. In fact, the city recently decided to spend over $100 million of public funds to build parking garages and associated hotels and office buildings. That adds up to more than $30,000 a parking spot, as one speaker at the council meeting pointed out.

The city has prioritized housing, vehicles and tourists over homeless human beings — who are instead criminalized, erased and harassed.

According to Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, a majority of Greensboro residents believe such measures are needed.

Yet in the five town hall meetings held by the city on the subject, the vast majority of people spoke in favor of helping the homeless and blocking attempts to criminalize them. Only a handful of people spoke in favor of the bill.

This was reflected at the most recent City Council meeting, where the majority of speakers from the audience opposed the bill and got applause for their sentiments. Council members who supported the anti-homeless ordinances were booed and heckled at times.

The people who most vehemently support laws criminalizing homelessness also benefit the most from the existence of poverty. Greensboro ranks seventh in the country in evictions per capita, according to the Princeton University Eviction Lab; ninth in in food insecurity; and thirteenth in the rate of poverty.

City Council member Michelle Kennedy, who is also executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, which deals primarily with issues of poverty and homelessness, spoke to the fact that Greensboro’s poor needed support, but was told this wasn’t the time for that discussion.

Kennedy noted that the supposed “threat” was perceived to be coming mostly from people with mental health issues. With the $32,000 spent on lawyers trying to figure out how to criminalize them, Kennedy noted that the city could instead have helped them find services and housing.

Last year, the Greensboro city budget devoted only 8 percent of its total funds to community services, and most of that went to parks and recreation. Less than 1 percent was devoted to neighborhood development and housing partnerships. For every $100 the city spends, only 60 cents goes to housing development.

Even when the budget does call for housing reforms, as with a $25 million bond initiative passed during the last election, there’s a catch. In this case, the money was specified for “working families” and those just above the poverty line, rather than for those in more dire need.

By comparison, police receive nearly 14 percent of Greensboro’s annual budget — and this year, that figure increased by more than the entire budget devoted to housing development.

GREENSBORO DOESN’T need more police or parking garages. We need to eliminate the root cause of homelessness: poverty. Poor people shouldn’t have to hide or fear arrest for asking for help.

The Homeless Union of Greensboro has made it clear that they will be at the forefront of the legal challenges to this bill, and fighting for resources for the homeless community, including a “Homeless Bill of Rights” similar to one passed in Duluth, Minnesota.

Duluth’s bill allows for the right to rest in, move freely around and use public property. It says that people can lawfully sleep in their cars on public property. The guarantee of these rights suggests that homeless people should not be “erased,” and that they should be able to live with dignity and respect.

The needs for the homeless don’t end with respect and dignity, of course. They include the right to a home. One of the rallying cries for the Homeless Union is “House keys, not handcuffs”: A commitment to housing and jobs with a living wage needs to be a minimum requirement.

In contrast to the thinking of city politicians, all people deserve to be able to live their lives with hope and dignity, and to be free of poverty and homelessness.

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