Being homeless is not a crime, despite recent actions to the contrary across the Carolinas.
In North Carolina, Raleigh police told members of Love Wins Ministries on Aug. 24 that they should not hand out breakfast biscuits to the homeless in Moore Square, a downtown park.
Turns out a ban that had not been enforced in the six years the group had been distributing food on the weekends suddenly became a topic of interest to the police chief.
Community meetings this past week led to a détente but also brought up some questions about whether the central location is the best for everyone, according to the Raleigh News & Observer — in particular, the subtext suggests, better for folks who’d rather not see the homeless up close and personal.
Similarly and closer to home, Columbia has attracted nationwide attention for a plan approved by the city council to evict homeless people from downtown streets. There’s also a proposal to have a shelter moved from its central downtown location to someplace less convenient, about 15 miles away.
It’s difficult to tell if these cases involve merely a few vocal business owners who have the ear of the city leadership or a more pervasive and persistent attitude across the citizenry — hopefully it’s the former.
How to really help
Crisis Ministries CEO Stacey Denaux said that what’s happening in Raleigh and Columbia are textbook examples of communities that don’t know how to serve and help their homeless populations.
“You can’t force people to accept help if they’re not ready,” Denaux said. So swooping in and gathering up folks, then depositing them at a shelter far from the services they need, isn’t going to fix the long-term problem. In fact, it just makes things worse.
“We’ve become, out of necessity, kind of a one-stop shop,” which helps the shelter’s clients find success. And if there are services the shelter can’t provide, being on the bus line makes it easier for clients to get where they need to go.
That’s better than criminalizing homelessness.
“It’s hard to understand how people can think of human beings as less than human beings,” Denaux said.
That kind of antagonistic relationship does not exist in Charleston, Denaux said, at least not lately.
Denaux said the city owes a debt to Mayor Joe Riley, who helped found the nonprofit in 1984. And she also had high praise for Police Chief Greg Mullen. “When Chief Mullen came to town, one of the first visits he made was to the shelter.” They have a good relationship that allows them to talk about issues before they become problems. “We don’t call the police to swoop people up out of the park,” she said.
In most communities, the services a homeless person would need are in the downtown area, Denaux said.
“You’re going to try to live where you can access the things you need — that’s human nature.”
Denaux said we should be proud of how Charleston cares for people in need.
“This idea of Southern hospitality isn’t limited to people who come visit us from far away. We sort of believe that everyone deserves some good old hospitality.”
Here’s hoping Raleigh and Columbia come around to that line of thought too.