Featured photo: Shelly Brannon has been homeless for the last three months since leaving an abusive relationship. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)
Editor’s note: At TCB we care deeply about language and the impact that words can have. As such, we understand that many who work with homeless people use the term “unhoused” or “houselessness” in lieu of “homeless.” As a team, we discussed the use of the term and decided that we would use whatever term was used by those who were interviewed for this story. That language choice has been reflected in this piece. For questions, feel free to reach out to Managing Editor Sayaka Matsuoka at [email protected]
Shelly Brannon gets up every morning around six or so and goes for a walk. She gets some breakfast at the place down the street and then takes a shower, gets dressed and charges her phone. In the afternoons, she spends time applying for jobs or going to job interviews. Then, when she’s done with most of her duties, she heads to the park. And waits.
Brannon’s morning routine may not sound that different from most people’s day-to-day schedules. But when the sun goes down and the temperatures drop, Brannon is faced with the ongoing challenge of finding a place to sleep.
“We don’t want to be in the city,” said Brannon, a 44-year-old Black woman. “We don’t want to lay on the sidewalks. We don’t want to be in areas we shouldn’t be. We don’t want to interrupt people who come in with their children. We don’t want to do that. We have nowhere else to go.”
Brannon is one of hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in the city of Greensboro. According to data collected by Continuums of Care to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, as of January 2020, North Carolina had an estimated 9,280 people who were homeless. According to data collected by Guilford County, there were 426 homeless people in the county as of Feb. 23. That includes both sheltered and unsheltered people. Compared to past years, the total number of people experiencing homeless is decreasing but the number of those who are unsheltered is on the rise from 2021.
City council cracks down on homelessness
In the last few months, Greensboro city council has cracked down on city ordinances that activists and those experiencing homelessness say criminalize poverty.
During a Sept. 1 work session, members of city council discussed topics such as the installation of signs that prohibit standing on traffic islands, confiscating items left in public spaces and requiring charity organizations to obtain licenses to serve food. Meanwhile, the homeless people that TCB spoke to all said that what they really need is shelter.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, a small group of volunteers distributed food and other supplies behind the large brick building that is the Greensboro Urban Ministry off of South Elm-Eugene Street. People in cars and on foot, of all ages and races, approached the fold-out table manned by members of Greensboro Working-Class and Houseless Organizing Alliance, otherwise known as GSO WHOA. In addition to pre-made turkey or ham sandwiches, the group passed out bars of soap, razors, COVID-19 masks, testing kits and bottled water. Several of the people who came to the table were on a first-name basis with volunteers who have been distributing supplies for low-income and homeless people for years.
Many of the individuals went to the Urban Ministry first, where they got hot meals, one of a few places in the city that serves those in need on a daily basis. That’s where Shelly Brannon usually goes to get her breakfast. As they passed out supplies, members of GSO WHOA didn’t ask people’s status or question them about their living situation. They understood that the need is high in the city, and they’re doing what they can to bridge the gap. Since they started this work in 2018, the group has not met much resistance from the city. But that could soon change.
As part of its recent crackdown on homelessness, members of Greensboro City Council discussed requiring groups like GSO WHOA to obtain licenses to distribute food.
At the Sept. 1 work session, District 3 representative Zack Matheny stated that the city needed to “hold accountable,” the “folks that think they are giving help.”
“You have some folks that… show up on any given day and time and think they are giving help by giving food that doesn’t go through the health department and leave significant trash lying around,” Matheny said. “So what is our goal in educating those that think they are helping and cleaning up their own stuff?”
Matheny was re-elected to city council this past July after his opponent, Chip Roth, pulled out of the race due to a cancer diagnosis and the incumbent, Justin Outling, ran for mayor. Matheny is a registered Republican who formerly served four terms in District 3 from 2007-15, when he retired to become the president of Downtown Greensboro, Inc. At the time, Matheny cited his role with DGI as a potential conflict of interest and stepped down from council. However, Matheny is still the president of the organization, which provides services to downtown businesses, and told TCB during the election campaign that neither he, nor City Attorney Chuck Watts, found a conflict of interest with him maintaining his position at DGI and being on council.
Now, those who work directly with homeless individuals in the community say that Matheny is using his ties to DGI to further an agenda against poor people.
“Having DGI take a seat directly is a sign,” said Billy Belcher, a volunteer with GSO WHOA. “But Nancy Vaughan is on board with this. It’s not like Zack is coming in and pushing an agenda on an unwilling city council.”
It’s true that Matheny isn’t the only one suggesting ordinances that could affect homeless people. During the Sept. 1 work session, Greensboro Police Attorney Andrea Harrell presented city council with “solutions” including installing signs on traffic medians as well as signs that threaten to dispose of personal belongings left in public spaces.
“We don’t want to enforce these ordinances by way of any criminal violation,” said Harrell. “Our hope is that an educational campaign and voluntary compliance is really going to help with some of the problems that we’re seeing.”
Mayor Nancy Vaughan suggested a change in the wording of Sec. 16-10 of the city ordinances that would make it easier for the city to remove items left in public spaces. The ordinance, as it currently is written, states the following: “It shall be unlawful to put any object or substance on a street which is likely to cause injury to a person, animal, or vehicle. Any person who accidentally drops any such substance on a street must immediately remove it, or cause it to be removed.”
The punishment for leaving items behind is a Class 3 misdemeanor with a maximum fine of $50.
Vaughan then asked Harrell if the word “injurious,” which appears later in the ordinance, can be removed.
“Do we have to have that word ‘injurious’ because I think people will debate that you know, a bag full of clothes, or other items especially items that we see, they’re not injurious,” Vaughan argued. “Is that necessary?”
Harrell responded by stating that the word could be removed.
Other city council members then debated whether or not the fine or a criminal charge is necessary, especially when targeted at people who are experiencing homelessness.
“If the person is experiencing homelessness, and they can’t get housing because they already have a record, putting a misdemeanor on top of that is something I really can’t support,” said District 1 council member Sharon Hightower.
In addition to the change in wording for Sec. 16-10, other suggested ordinances include changes to Sec. 18-44 and Se.c 18-50 which relate to blocking sidewalks and unlawful noise. There is also a suggested change to an ordinance relating to abandoned shopping carts.
All of the suggested changes will be voted on by city council during the Oct. 3 meeting. The public has the opportunity to voice their opinion about the changes at the same meeting.
‘Everybody out here gets look at like they’re trash’
While those who advocate on behalf of the homeless population find the new ordinances concerning, perhaps the most damaging and effective one is the change suggested by Matheny related to groups who give away food.
As members of GSO WHOA made their way from the Urban Ministries to Center City Park in downtown, familiar faces as well as new ones approached to receive help. Shelly Brannon was one of them.
She told Triad City Beat that help from organizations like GSO WHOA is how she currently survives. Brannon has been homeless for the last three months, after leaving an abusive relationship, she said. And besides Urban Ministries and the Interactive Resource Center, she said there aren’t that many places for people like her to turn to. The possibility of organizations like GSO WHOA having to become licensed and potentially being shut down is scary for her, Brannon said.
“It made me upset because those people and those organizations help out the community a lot,” she said. “I rely on every organization that is going to feed me, give me clothing, shoes, anything about housing, I’m going to accept those. I love that; it’s a resource because when I first came here, there weren’t any resources that I knew of, so I was happy.”
GSO WHOA is an all-volunteer organization that relies heavily on donations to do its work. Every Thursday, members of the group spend a few hours making about 120 sandwiches and care bags to distribute on Saturday mornings. They rarely have leftovers.
“We anticipate that they’ll use these ordinances to come after us and make us stop or make us work for the city, neither of which we like,” said Belcher.
Nearby, Ethan, a white, 25-year-old man from Illinois, told TCB that he’s been homeless for about three months. When asked about the new signs and the potential changes in the ordinances, Ethan said it was upsetting.
“What the city is trying to do is really negative,” he said. “It makes me upset because it’s hard enough for people in this situation to get something to eat, and now you’re going to regulate who can and can’t serve food.”
Ethan, who also spends time in Center City Park, said that just the other day, he saw another homeless man fishing food out of the garbage cans. Ethan and others portioned out food they had received from nearby churches to give to him.
“Would you rather feed people or do you want to have them eating out of trash cans?” he asked.
As an agoraphobic and antisocial person, Ethan said he mostly tries to stay away from the crowds downtown. He also doesn’t panhandle and just makes do with what he can get from organizations like GSO WHOA to eat.
That’s another misconception that he and others that TCB spoke to said many people have about those experiencing homelessness. Of the six people TCB spoke to, none of them said they ask people for money on the street. Many of them cited shame on top of the already negative misconceptions people tend to have about homeless people as a deterrent.
“Would you rather feed people or do you want to have them eating out of trash cans?”
“Nobody would really know what it’s like until they spend a day or a week,” Ethan said. “If someone from one of these nice buildings would just spend a month out there, they would see how hard it is for anybody out here…. Everybody out here gets looked at like they’re trash just because we’re in the situation we’re in. Right now it feels like we’re barely getting enough help as it is and now it’s just going to make it even more difficult for the rest of us.”
YES! Weekly previously reported about another group that feeds homeless people regularly and how they always pick up trash and take it to the dumpsters themselves. One of the volunteers, Kriste Clodfelter, said that the moves by city council are a way to push people out of downtown.
“There’s nowhere else for them to charge their phones on Sundays, or even go to the bathroom,” Clodfelter told YES! Weekly. “The city is trying to take away their right to basic human needs.”
‘I’m going to lay here and die’
At the Interactive Resource Center, the only dedicated day shelter for homeless people in the city, people gathered to receive what was left of GSO WHOA’s supplies. They ran out of sandwiches earlier at Center City Park and handed out bottles of water and soap. Some people, who waited for the group to come, expressed anger at the lack of food.
“We’ve never run out this early before,” said Luis Medina, a member of GSO WHOA. “This means that the population is growing.”
Tucked under a tarp that hung neatly between the branches of a sturdy tree, 60-year-old Dwayne Chapman sought shelter from the drizzling rain. He told TCB that he’s been homeless for a few years and has gotten into the routine of putting up the tarp at the spot next to the IRC on the weekends because during the week, staff won’t let him. When they leave at night however, he finds his way back to the spot to sleep.
“Everything I own is right here,” Chapman said as he pointed to the belongings around him. A few backpacks, some blankets, a sleeping bag and some snacks surrounded him.
“I don’t want a lot of stuff because I don’t want to carry it,” he said as he munched on a bag of Doritos.
Chapman, who served in the US Army from 1980-87, isn’t as mobile as some of the other homeless folks downtown. He’s currently suffering from collapsed arteries, which prevent him from walking too much. It’s something he’s been addressing with case workers and a nurse at the IRC, seeking treatment. Because of his condition, Chapman can’t work; he said he relies on the IRC as well as organizations like GSO WHOA for his needs.
“The kindness of others is what I’m living on right now,” said Chapman, who said he doesn’t panhandle. When asked about the influx of signs concerning possessions and standing on medians in recent weeks, Chapman said he’s noticed them. One time, not long ago, when Chapman had set up his tarp across the street from the IRC, he said police came and took his ID and said if they caught him again, they would write him a ticket and take him to jail. That’s when he moved over to the area next to the building.
“I’m just trying to keep my stuff clean and I don’t throw trash around,” Chapman said. “But yeah, they come on over a lot now.”
As for the end of organizations like GSO WHOA, Chapman said it amounts to a death sentence for him and others like him.
“I can’t walk out and hustle and do all that, so instead of having people bring me food, they can cremate me or burn me because I’m going to be dead,” Chapman said. “That’s just the bottom line. I have no other choice. I’m not gonna steal and all of that shit, so I’m going to lay here and die, and I want them to know that, and tell them thank you because at least I’ll be out of pain.”
The need for housing
When asked what they need most from people in positions of power like members of city council, the answer from every person TCB talked to was the same: shelter.
Currently, the IRC doesn’t provide shelter at night and there are a limited number of places for people to go, including the Weaver House, operated by the Greensboro Urban Ministry and an emergency shelter run by the YWCA for families. However, seeking shelter at these places often takes time, with an involved process that can be prohibitive for people. Once inside, there are strict rules for when people can come and go, what they can bring. Still, Shelly Brannon said she wants to see more shelters in the city to help those like her.
“I would love for them to find a building for shelter,” she said. “Something that holds at least 200 beds. Yeah, that would be the No. 1 priority to meet. That’s my No. 1 concern. A lot of homeless people that I speak to, that’s the thing. That’s our main concern.”
In 2021, due to COVID-19, the city temporarily converted an old motel into emergency shelter during the coldest months of the year. Now, as the temperature drops, many who are currently sleeping on the streets will inevitably turn towards emergency shelters to stay warm.
In the past, the IRC and the YWCA have opened winter shelters once the temperatures drop below 25 degrees for longer than two hours. No information has yet been released about plans for winter shelters this year.
In June, the New York Times reported that Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, was tackling homelessness from a new angle — not one rooted in penalties or policing, but one that centered housing as the main solution. Those who advocate for this approach have called it the “housing first” method and although it’s not solving the issue completely, it’s a good first step, advocates say.
“During the last decade, Houston…has moved more than 25,000 homeless people directly into apartments and houses,” the New York Times reported. “The overwhelming majority of them have remained housed after two years.”
The number of homeless people was cut by 63 percent since 2011.
While the model in Houston is complex, the results act as a beacon of hope for advocates who have been doing this work for years.
“We want to see people support organizations that provide direct support,” said Del Stone, an organizer with GSO WHOA. “Something that actually provides housing.”
Shelly Brannon said that most homeless folks like herself are just trying to survive. She said that she’s looking forward to a job interview at Gabe’s, set to take place this week and will keep applying for jobs to try and make the best of her situation.
“At the end of the day, we’re all human,” she said. “Give us a break. We need to work together, all of us. We got to live here in this community. We have to find some type of resolution so everybody can be happy. It’s not just about us, it’s about everybody, because we all make up this city. We have opinions too, we just don’t know how to voice them or where to voice them.”
The next city council will take place at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 3 in the Katie Dorsett Council Chamber at 300 W. Washington St. in downtown Greensboro. Those wishing to voice their opinions about the new ordinances can do so by signing up to speak in person or submit public comments virtually on the city website.
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