CITIZEN GREEN: Homeless advocates see remnants of Jim Crow

LaTonya Stimpson, a member of the homeless union, speaks during a presentation of a new report on policing and housing. (photo by Jordan Green)

The numbers are not surprising, but it’s striking to see them nailed down: In a survey of more than 200 people experiencing homelessness in Greensboro, 51.5 percent reported being cited, harassed or arrested by police for hanging out — or loitering, as it’s known in the general statutes.

Exactly half said they’d been harassed for sleeping.

Almost half for sitting or lying down.

More than a third for asking for money, also known as panhandling.

The share of survey participants who were black was 68.5 percent, compared to 41.8 percent of the city’s population.

Forty-two percent of the survey participants told the researchers from Guilford College and UNCG that they believed they had been targeted by police for appearing to be homeless. And 43.6 percent said they believed they had been targeted for race, manifesting a double burden. Economic status, gender, disability and sexuality also factored into survey participants’ perceptions that they were targeted by the police.

The Greensboro Police Department routinely denies that its officers show bias. When I interviewed two men experiencing homelessness in the summer of 2018, they complained about two police officers in particular whom they said were notorious for harassment. Capt. John Thompson, who oversees the Center City Division, told me at the time: “There’s nothing in my experience to say they’re overly aggressive.”

To date, no court that I’m aware of has found the city of Greensboro and its police force liable for violating the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness, but it’s hard to not see a pattern.

The report, which is entitled A Safe Place to Stay: Combating Homelessness, Police Violence and Jim Crow in Greensboro, draws a through-line from black codes that enforced exclusion and Jim Crow through “broken windows” policing and the criminalization of homelessness beginning in the 1990s. It’s a tragic mark of failure that these laws and customs have all flourished since the 1868 ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, whose guarantee of equal protection under the law has been plagued by spotty enforcement.

“There’s legal mechanisms — specific laws that are used to reinforce inequality, criminalizing mundane and basic life-sustaining activities,” said Marcus Hyde, an organizer with the Homeless Union of Greensboro, during a presentation of the report at McGirt-Horton Library on Tuesday evening. “When it was asked what do you get messed with for? What do you get harassed, cited and arrested for? Those were basic things — sitting on the sidewalk, lying down. Those were things people necessarily have to do if they lack housing, if they lack the means to afford housing on their own.”

And then there’s custom.

“The other part of Jim Crow’s very much real, especially in this town,” Hyde said. “We have a history knowing that it goes beyond the law, right? There doesn’t need to be a specific statute that people treat certain minority populations different, right? And people have had to fight that, too.”

The report examines not only policing, but also housing. It limns a history of drastic divestment by the federal government from low-income housing from 1978 to 1983, and various programs to jettison public housing units going by names like HOPE VI, Transforming Rental Assistance and Rental Assistance Demonstration.

In 2016, Greensboro voters approved a $25 million housing bond. Beth McKee-Huger, the retired executive director of the Greensboro Housing Coalition, said that despite being billed as “affordable,” the housing units produced through the investment of bond funds are typically out of reach for the poor people who are in most dire need of housing.

“The city wanted to leverage that $25 million by having the city put some money in that private developers will put money in,” she said. “And by putting money into huge projects, where they come up with $800-$900 a month rents and leverage millions and millions of dollars, and they say, ‘See, doesn’t this look good? We’ve leveraged all this money.’ So they’ve leveraged all the money, but they haven’t come up with housing that’s affordable to the lowest income people. You don’t get much leverage when you’re building housing that’s $300 a month. But it’s what’s needed most.”

The report includes a 10 Point Platform summed up as “Homes, Jobs & Justice Now — Not Death in the Streets.” The “toolkit” handed out to the roughly 40 people who attended the presentation includes model policies on eviction diversion, written consent for police searches, guidelines for police interactions with people experiencing homelessness and non-police mobile crisis services, which the group wants to see adopted by Greensboro City Council.

They’re armed with data, they’re building coalitions, and they’re coming to a city council meeting in the near future.

“They have violated all of my rights when I experienced homelessness, and they still continue to violate peoples’ rights in this report,” said LaTonya Stimpson, a member of the homeless union. “It’s awesome to let people know how the police department and the city of Greensboro handle homeless people. And it’s not just here. But we are here, and I am here. And I am here to tackle this problem because it needs to be addressed.”

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