Featured photo: Center City Park is where a number of unhoused people hang out during the day. (photo by Gale Melcher)
People strolling through Greensboro’s Center City Park and LeBauer Park may notice some new and prominent signs. Upon entering, park rules warn visitors in fine print that disruptive behaviors like entering garden beds, putting bubbles in the fountains and climbing on sculptures are not tolerated. Additionally, rules banning the use of hammocks, storage of personal belongings, charitable distribution by local groups and setting up tents appear specifically targeted at the city’s unhoused who often take refuge within the parks, according to some local activists.
The move, they say, is part of an ongoing effort by city leaders to push unhoused people out of the city center. In August, the city was sent a letter from members of the NC ACLU, who demanded that they “stop removing, destroying belongings of unhoused people.”
While the parks are owned by the city, they are run by Greensboro’s Downtown Parks, Inc., or GDPI, a nonprofit organization that has a public-private partnership with the city.
A memorandum of understanding, or MOU, was put in place between GDPI and the city in 2016. Cheryl White started her role as GDPI’s new director in January. In an interview with TCB, White said that the city wanted an entity that would maintain the parks and activate them as well — with stages, kiosks, vendors and other entertainment facilitators that are spread throughout the facilities today.
What’s the relationship between the city and GDPI?
According to a 2001 University of North Carolina School of Government article, local governments across the country have increased their involvement with nonprofit organizations. Donations to 501(c)3 organizations are tax-deductible, which encourages “private giving.”
“[M]any have involved nonprofits in service delivery, drawing on these organizations’ volunteers and private financial resources, as well as their greater flexibility of action,” the article noted.
According to White, GDPI’s board has 25 membership slots. Six of those are city appointed, while the rest are community appointed. City officials currently seated on the board include Mayor Nancy Vaughan, councilmembers Zack Matheny and Tammi Thurm, Assistant City Manager Nasha McCray and Parks and Recreation Director Phil Fleischmann.
GDPI staff takes care of all the park management, but ultimately the city makes the rules.
“It is city property…We are governed by city rules, we are governed by city ordinances,” White said, adding that GDPI is “just trying to follow along with the ordinances of the literal property owners of the place.”
City Attorney Chuck Watts confirmed that GDPI has to work with the city’s legal staff to finalize any park rules.
White said that GDPI is in the business of making sure the parks are “maintained” and “accessible for everyone.”
“The parks are an inclusive space and they are open to everyone,” she told TCB.
“Part of the reason people come to the park is because they need to feel safe,” White added.
White said that the parks are part of a “big safety net” that ensures there are places for people to rest, for people who “might not have a spot to feel safe or a place to use the restroom” to use their facilities. White said that people form a line at the bathrooms around 6-7 a.m.
“We are there making sure that they’re open so that people have a place to do that. I wish that we could do more, but we’re definitely not a social services agency,” White said.
Despite White’s assertions that the park is for “everyone,” some activists who interface regularly with unhoused individuals see the increased rules around the parks as a way to keep them and unhoused people out of the areas.
‘A more antagonistic approach’
Sitting on a bench in Center City Park, Scott Lynch told TCB that he had been sleeping on the sidewalk outside the park for around 90 days.
“I’ve got nowhere to go. I mean, I’ve tried to get into the shelter,” he said, adding, “They’re at capacity too, I guess.”
Lynch also said that he’s noticed an increase in the city’s unhoused population.
He said that while he knows some of the park rules are being broken, he and others “really ain’t got nowhere to go.”
In recent months, elements of what some advocates call “hostile architecture” have appeared in the parks along with the new signs.
In February, the city spent a total of $9,589 on metal dividers for some of the stone seating areas in Center City Park. Seating dividers, spikes or balls on areas where people could sit or lay, have been dubbed “hostile” due to the fact that their presence makes it impossible for people to rest.
Parks and Recreation Director Phil Fleischmann told TCB that the armrests were installed as a “part of overall improvements to the park,” adding that the city is “taking steps to address seating, landscaping and other needs” with GDPI. Fleischmann added that 10 new benches were installed recently to replace the original wooden benches, which had deteriorated.
Dr. Lauren Mullenbach is a professor at the University of Oklahoma whose research focuses on environmental justice issues related to urban land use, as well as public perceptions of homelessness. In an interview, Mullenbah told TCB that it’s fairly standard for a city to partner with a nonprofit group to operate its parks.
“Pretty often, the city will own the land but not have the capacity to run the park system themselves,” she said.
This brings a foundation or other type of nonprofit group into play, and they’ll do anything from offering programming and events to landscaping.
“I’ve seen certain cities become more open and welcoming and inclusive of people that experience homelessness,” Mullenbach said. “And then I’ve seen the cities that have a backlash to that cultural sentiment that people experiencing homelessness are humans that we should treat well.”
“You can kind of guess the characteristics politically of the two different cities that take these two different approaches,” she added.
Mullenbach said that while a handful of cities on the West Coast take an inclusive approach, some cities in the county’s central and southern states “don’t love the cultural turn toward inclusion and belonging of all groups of people in parks.”
Mullenbach is currently conducting a study in a smaller Midwestern city where the “park district is trying to be very caring in their approach to people who experience homelessness.” There, the staff make an effort to connect the unhoused to resources and allow them to use the park and inhabit the space overnight. They take a “much kinder approach,” Mullenbach said, which is “not looked upon favorably by people” on the Citizens Park Advisory Board or general members of the community.
“You see people sort of wanting to take a more antagonistic approach,” Mullenbach added.
When trying to justify their reasoning for creating rules that make it harder on the unhoused community, Mullenbach said that some cities will say, “Well, we have a city ordinance,” or “These are what the park rules are.”
Mullenbach said that there’s a lot of “leaning on the rules.” For example, people might say that they’re “just enforcing the rules, and the rules are that you can’t occupy the space at night,” Mullenbach said.
Mullenbach added that there’s concern about open drug and alcohol use, violence or just “nuisance behaviors like panhandling or something like that.”
“And so they hide behind the cover of law and policy,” she said.
As TCB reported in 2018, the ACLU and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty brought a legal challenge against the city’s past panhandling ordinance that made it illegal for people to ask others for money. Shortly afterwards, the city repealed the ordinance and the lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed in 2020.
People like to “wave the flag of safety and drug use and crime and violence as sort of a cover for other more sinister sentiments that they might have,” Mullenbach noted.
Mullenbach sees “ideological differences” in “how open public spaces should be and how we should treat people that have fewer means.”
GDPI’s Cheryl White said that for the most recent changes to the rules, the organization worked with the city manager and the city attorney to make “two or three very minor” changes.
According to a document sent by White, the organization changed the language of the rules to include the prohibition of camping gear such as tents and lanterns, and removed language banning sleeping in the parks. The new rules also include a line about skateboarding, which is now banned inside the parks.
“No Smoking” signs have been erected as well. Those are new, White said, however there is a designated smoking area in LeBauer Park.
Local organizations that advocate for the unhoused take particular issue with sections in the new rules regarding charitable distribution, solicitation and commercial activity.
Dr. Del Stone has a PhD in History from Emory University and is an organizer with the Working-Class and Houseless Alliance in Greensboro. WHOA distributes food to the unhoused every Saturday, hosts a community meal once a month and distributes water mid-week during the summertime.
Charitable distribution is not allowed in either park or along Davie Street, because of the new rules. Still, White told TCB that they’ve never stopped WHOA from distributing.
Stone said that White’s statement is “fairly accurate,” but that WHOA has been told in the past not to distribute in the park and move their operations to Friendly Avenue.
A public records request showed that Guilford Metro 911 received more than 150 calls for service at LeBauer Park between Aug. 1, 2021 and Aug. 21 of this year. Police responded to calls that ranged from disorderly conduct, assault, trespassing, “suspicious activity” and more. During the same time frame, Center City Park received more than 400 calls for service.
LeBauer Park is part of the city’s new Social District, but Center City Park is not. The district allows members of the public to purchase and walk with alcoholic drinks while within the boundaries. It includes areas of downtown between Gate City Boulevard and Smith Street, and appears to cut pretty strategically around Center City Park. This January, city councilmembers declined to extend the social district to Center City Park. If you purchase an alcoholic beverage from one of the bars along North Greene Street and want to enjoy it in LeBauer Park, you can’t cut through Center City Park to get there.
“I think there’s a lot of concern over who is doing the activity, rather than the activity itself being problematic,” Mullenbach stated.
As for what Greensboro could be doing to make their parks more inclusive, Mullenbach said, “In a perfect world where they just overnight change their minds about homelessness, allowing parks to be open 24/7 is basically the biggest thing you can do. Allowing overnight sleeping, allowing food to be distributed.”
Greensboro’s parks are currently open from 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
Mullenbach also suggested that GDPI could put together fundraising events to raise money so they can have “special programming for unhoused people” or build more overhead shelter such as a gazebo to help protect them from the elements.
What led to the rule changes?
July is usually “peak season,” White said. This is when she noticed an “increase in general of people in the park,” and more people means more events, more trash, more maintenance — more park activity in general.
Some people have a negative perception about the parks, White said.
White said that people often assume that trash left in the park is due to the unhoused population and charitable distributions. But it’s often because of an event or something else happening in the park. On a recent occasion, there was an event in the park that had to be abruptly canceled due to inclement weather, White said. Trash cans blew over, their contents spilling. While the team was in the midst of cleaning it up, they received complaints, White said.
Contributors to GDPI seem to have an influence on what goes on within the parks.
In a July 26 email, the Cemala Foundation’s Executive Director Susan Schwartz informed Vaughan and Matheny that the sidewalk near Center City Park looked “terrible.” The Cemala Foundation is a charitable organization that has contributed millions of dollars toward Center City Park.
“There are clothes strewn about, food, food container[s], and more. Very unsightly. I hope you can find someone to clean up the mess,” Schwartz wrote.
Vaughan wrote back to Schwartz saying that she had “noticed an increase in people in the park.”
“One provider did tell me that there might be additional feeding in the park,” Vaughan wrote, adding, “We do need to find an alternate location.”
TCB reached out to Schwartz multiple times for an interview, but did not receive a response.
Regarding the email chain, White told TCB that she gets emails like Schwartz’s “weekly” from “various people.”
This isn’t the first time that emails from powerful people appear to have had an influence on city rules.
On Aug. 21, 2022, Vaughan wrote to former GDPI director Rob Overman with concerns about amplified noise in the parks, which was “very loud and disruptive to anyone in either park…”
“[I] know it has a negative impact on the food kiosks at LeBauer,” she added. Vaughan also asked about permits for tents that various groups were setting up for their activities.
In an Aug. 29, 2022 email to Vaughan, Overman wrote, “You are correct, a permit is required to erect a tent within the park boundaries, which this group is occupying. Ordinarily, groups work with our staff to obtain a permit and go through our process.”
Overman mentioned that the Black Hebrew Israelites, one of the groups in question, tended to “target” LeBauer from the Tanger Center sidewalk. The Black Hebrew Israelites have been labeled as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for their anti-Semitic views.
Overman said that they were “highly combative,” had “threatened” staff, and made “disparaging remarks on multiple occasions.”
“It has reached a point where even park security is afraid to engage them,” Overman wrote.
Overman added that there was another group that had been setting up tents and loud speakers as well, and was “providing haircuts and homeless advocacy.”
“I believe the leader of the group and some others have spoken at city council meetings recently,” Overman wrote, adding that “both groups have been very aggressive and only become more agitated when confronted.”
This email was sent around a month before the council voted in October 2022 to update city ordinances with language that many critics said targeted the unhoused community, including an ordinance that was changed to state that those who use amplified sound using a radio, stereo, CD player or cassette player within 30 feet from a building would be in violation. One ordinance was changed to state that anyone who leaves objects on the street or in a public space would be charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor and fined a maximum of $50, while another was changed to specify that anyone or object that prevents 36 inches of clear access “to freely pass through a sidewalk, public passageway or entrance or exit to a building” would be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $50.
How much funding is GDPI working with?
City records show that GDPI receives an annual contribution of $350,000 from the city, an amount that has remained unchanged since 2016, according to White.
“Nothing else about pricing has stayed the same,” White chuckled. However, the city has “come in when there were big issues that needed attention,” she said.
The city also contributes funding for utilities, maintenance and repair, and takes care of the security by staffing one guard who monitors both parks 24/7.
In FY 2018-19, this additional funding was $72,504. In FY 2019-20, it was $58,068. In FY 2020-21, it went down to $47,414. In addition to this, the city provided around $14,000 in labor hours or “in-kind contributions” from the parks and recreation department each year.
Funding from the city doesn’t cover all the expenses to maintain the parks, White said.
“In a good year, there used to be about a $1 million budget,” White said, adding that this year their operating budget is around $880,000.
GDPI’s 2022 annual report shows that 42 percent of their income came from the city and 28 percent came from sponsorship and events. Fundraising supplied 14 percent of their income while another 6 percent came from endowment, grants, etc. GDPI also receives small, individual donations.
GDPI spends a little bit more money on Center City Park due to the fountain upkeep as well as its age. An increase in attendance after the pandemic and a need to replace the turf in the children’s garden added to additional costs. Because of ongoing upkeep, White said that
GDPI is “in no way” profiting off of the parks.
“We are really breaking even,” White said, adding, “We’ve had to make some very big cuts, we are low on staff.”
GDPI receives an endowment of around $40,000-$50,000 from the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, as well as two named sponsorships — LeBauer Park’s Lincoln Financial Children’s Garden and the UNCG Great Lawn. People sponsor programs such as the group dog-training program held in LeBauer Park.
“We’re really trying to do everything we can to make sure that we can manage it as efficiently as possible with the limited resources that we have,” White concluded.
Back at the park, Lynch pointed at all the empty buildings around.
“As far as the Greensboro leaders who are wanting to figure out how they could help out or do something about the homeless — I mean, if they would look around at some of these empty buildings, it would be pretty simple,” he said.
“Open it up, put beds in it,” Lynch said, concluding: “You could probably solve half of this stuff right here.”
Park Rules & Regulations for Center City Park and LeBauer Park
Park Hours, Care and Spaces
- Park hours are from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. except for approved special events
- Visitors are not permitted to enter garden beds, prune plants or remove flowers.
- Littering is prohibited.
- Bubbles, soaps, food and other substances that may negatively impact the park, public health or public safety are not permitted in the fountains or spray grounds.
- Park visitors and pets are not permitted in the fountain in Center City Park.
- The use of hammocks or camping gear (tents, lanterns, etc.) in the park is prohibited.
- Erecting structures of any kind is prohibited.
- Storing or leaving personal belongings after the park has closed is prohibited.
- Large personal belongings including suitcases, storage containers, shopping carts or other art items that obstruct the right of way are not permitted.
- Climbing on sculptures, trees and fences is prohibited.
- The removal of items from trash receptacles is prohibited.
- Defacement or damage of park property or material is prohibited.
- Disorderly conduct as identified in NCGS 14-288.4 is prohibited.
- Firearms are prohibited except as permitted under NCGS 14-415.11
- Adults must accompany and supervise children under the age of 12 at all times.
- Adults are not allowed in the Lincoln Financial Children’s Garden unless when accompanied by a child.
- The Spin-A-Round is for children ages 12 and under only.
- Children must be accompanied by an adult when using the Spin-A-Round.
- Animals must be on a leash at all times, except in the Dog Park.
- No more than three dogs per person allowed in the dog park at any time.
- Animals are not permitted in the Seasonal Plaza fountain or Children’s Garden with the exception of service animals.
- Dog owners must pick up after their dogs.
- The riding of animals and/or the molestation of or causing injury to an animal is prohibited.
- Alcoholic beverages are prohibited, except those purchased at LeBauer Park kiosks
- LeBauer Park kiosk beer and wine may not be taken to Center City Park.
- No person shall possess, distribute, sell, solicit or consume marijuana or any controlled substance in the parks.
- Smoking is only permitted in the designated smoking area in LeBauer Park.
Distribution, Solicitation and Commercial Activity
- Charitable organizations distributing food and supplies are permitted to set up temporarily along Friendly [Avenue] and Elm Street.
- In accordance with City ordinances, sidewalks cannot be fully blocked, no tents may be erected and all trash must be promptly removed.
- Charitable distribution activities are not permitted in LeBauer Park, Center City Park or along Davie Street.
- Commercial activity is allowed by permit only.
- Panhandling is prohibited in LeBauer Park and Center City Park.
- GPDI must pre-approve flyers. Flyers without approval or posts in undesignated areas are subject to cleanup fees.
Recreation & Vehicles
- Events must be pre approved by GDPI staff.
- Any activity including equipment setup, marketing/sales or elevated sound/performance is considered an event.
- Outside of pre-approved activity, sound amplifying devices that can be heard at a distance of more than 10 feet are not permitted.
- Motorized recreational vehicles, including scooters, skateboards and bikes are prohibited.
- Non-motorized bicycling, skateboarding or rollerblading, scooters or any other off-road transportation are permitted on paved surfaces only. Users must practice safe riding at all times and dismount in crowded areas.
- Remote control cars, boats, helicopters, planes, etc. are prohibited.
- Aerial drones are prohibited unless approved by GDPI staff and maneuvered by licensed pilots.
- Fires, barbecuing, outdoor cooking or any other open flame are prohibited
- Skateboarding is prohibited inside the parks.
Failure to comply with these rules and regulations may result in a warning, citation, expulsion or arrest. Park rules and regulations are subject to change without notice.
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