Featured photo: A downtown sign enforces the ordinance that threatens to throw away belongings that are left in public spaces. (courtesy photo)

After five hours of contentious comments and debate, Greensboro City Council passed three amendments to existing ordinances on Monday that critics say criminalize poverty and homelessness.

Council split along racial lines on two of them, with all of the Black members voting against and the white members voting in favor. After hearing comments from several speakers who opposed the changes, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson suggested that council take more time to analyze the changes. She also suggested creating a focus group made up of homeless individuals, volunteer groups and downtown businesses to come up with solutions, rather than penalties. The four Black members of council — Yvonne Johnson, Sharon Hightower, Hugh Holston and Goldie Wells — voted to table the amendments but ultimately the vote failed.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan who has been in support of these amendments said that she didn’t want to “kick the can down the road” and that the issues were about “public safety.”

“This is a public safety issue, to people not only in the homeless community, but to other people who frequent places not only in downtown, but throughout our city,” Vaughan said. “And quite frankly, it has only gotten worse.”

The adopted amendments are as follows:

  • Sec. 16-10 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. Previously, the wording of the ordinance was such that people who left “injurious objects” left behind would be in violation. However, the amendment passed on Monday took out the wording to state that “any object, substance, or waste” left in a public place would be considered.
    • This amendment passed 5-4 with Mayor Vaughan, Marikay Abuzuaiter, Zack Matheny, Tammi Thurm and Nancy Hoffman voting in favor.
  • Sec. 18-44 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. Previously, the wording of the ordinance was more broad and simply stated those who “unreasonably obstructed” areas would be in violation. Added to the ordinance was a part that included not just persons blocking areas, but objects as well.
    • This amendment passed 6-3 with Mayor Vaughan, Abuzuaiter, Matheny, Thurm, Mayor Pro-tem Johnson and Hoffman voting in favor.
  • Sec. 18-50 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. A penalty was not included in the amended ordinance. City councilmembers, at the urging of councilmember Hightower, made an amendment to the ordinance on Monday evening, to include that protests and rallies would be exempt from this rule.
    • This amendment passed unanimously.

While the final amendment appeared to be targeted at street preachers known as the Black Israelites or Radical Hebrew Israelites who often set up in downtown Greensboro according to Yes! Weekly, the other two amendments target the homeless community directly, critics said on Monday.

“These individuals are people, humans deserving of fair treatment and respect,” said Heather Griffin, a local volunteer who helps feed the homeless population downtown. “Most homeless people travel with their belongings on them. They either have a suitcase or some kind of cart, sometimes it’s a backpack. If they leave it unattended, there’s probably a reason. Nobody wants all of their life possessions, their harmless possessions, thrown away simply because they went to get food or went to use the restroom. You can tell whether something is someone’s belongings or whether it is something that’s harmful.”

Mayor Nancy Vaughan

In previous reporting, Triad City Beat talked to a handful of people experiencing homelessness downtown. Many of them had backpacks or small bundles of items they carried with them to survive. One man, Dwayne Chapman, told TCB that he has some stuff, but it’s not much because he’s disabled and has to carry everything with him.

“Everything I own is right here,” Chapman said as he pointed to a few backpacks, some blankets, a sleeping bag and some snacks. “I don’t want a lot of stuff because I don’t want to carry it.”

As someone experiencing homelessness, Chapman is now vulnerable to being targeted by the new ordinance because he lives outside.

Paulette Montgomery, a vocal critic of city council, noted that if the changes were adopted, it could be life threatening for some on the streets.

“Trash is how I’ve heard of the unhoused belongings being referred to,” Montgomery said. “I don’t know if you realize what could happen by removing a person’s belongings — a blanket to keep warm, water, clothes and maybe medicine to keep them alive. If you have a diabetic out there who takes insulin and you take those belongings, what’s going to happen to them? … Are they just going to die on the streets from diabetic ketoacidosis? If they pass out and block the sidewalk are you going to fine them for obstruction too?”

Matheny targeted, offers possible solution

As speaker after speaker — in total more than 20 — objected to the changes to the ordinances, many targeted councilmember Matheny directly. Matheny, who joined city council in July, has been concerned with safety and cleanliness in downtown, particularly in the parks, since his election a few months ago. As the president of Downtown Greensboro, Inc., Matheny’s involvement on city council is seen as a direct conflict of interest by many in the community. As reported by TCB on Sept. 29, Matheny has been vocal about trash left behind by volunteer groups that serve food to the homeless community downtown. During a Sept. 1 council work session, Matheny suggested that the groups should have to obtain licenses to continue doing the work that they do. However, his suggestion did not make it onto the calendar for Monday’s meeting.

Zack Matheny

Despite the many jabs at Matheny, he also appeared to be the only city council member who brought forth a potential solution that could help the homeless population. He voted in favor of all three amendments but also asked city staff to dig into the city’s contract with the Partnership Homes from 2021. Last December, the city entered into an agreement with the nonprofit, which bought the old Regency Hotel and converted it into emergency winter housing for 100 homeless people. After being used for one season, the building has sat vacant for months.

“It is the epitome of what the city should be doing,” Matheny said. “Yet, when we bought that building, we didn’t have the plan when the folks move out. So they move out, and that building has been sitting empty since April. That is a problem…. But the city should have at that time when we bought that building, had our own money that when those folks moved out, we begin construction, people would be living in there right now and we could knock about 64 to 100 people off the streets and into a home with wraparound services.”

He then asked staff to come back with a plan within the next two weeks to get permanent supportive housing at the Regency Hotel. 

However, City Manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba told Matheny that the city didn’t own the building, but that they could come back with a plan.

Council members also said that if the Regency Hotel is reopened, that they would want to see additional shelters in other parts of the city too, because homelessness isn’t just a downtown problem.

Luis Medina with the Greensboro Working-Class and Houseless Organizing Alliance, said during Monday’s meeting that the group had demands for city council. He listed the need for public showers, bathrooms and water fountains, free public transportation and a houseless bill of rights. Later on during the meeting, councilmember Wells pointed to Medina’s solutions as possibilities that the city could look into.

GSO WHOA has been distributing supplies to homeless folks for the last four years. (courtesy photo)

“You say the problem has gotten worse,” Wells said about Vaughan’s comments earlier in the meeting. “They’ve gotten worse because we never found a solution in the first place.”

Wells, Hightower, Johnson and Holston all supported coming up with solutions before voting on the amendments. Hightower even alluded to the fact that council moved quickly on the amendments because of Matheny’s election to council.

“[T]he bottom line is that Zack has been back three months and we’ve jumped through hoops for this,” Hightower said. “And there are ordinances that I have been pushing that have not moved for well over a year. And so, I think that to me, that’s problematic.”

She also had questions about how the ordinances would be enforced for people who are already struggling to get by.

“For them, their stuff is their home,” Hightower said. “[W]hat does the enforcement piece look like if someone leaves their stuff in a doorway?”

Despite support from some of council, community members expressed their lack of belief that as a whole, council would change their minds. Anticipating that they would pass the amendments like they ultimately did, some speakers came with plans on how to continue to support the homeless population.

“I am personally setting up a patrol for downtown,” Montgomery said. “We have several members already and we will go daily, nightly and we will be checking for the so-called trash that you’re saying the organizations that feed the unhoused and the unhoused themselves are leaving behind. If we need to sit with someone’s belongings while they run to the bathroom or get something to eat, we will be doing that also.”

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