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Conflict of interests

September 21, 2011

Russell lives outside in a tent.

He’s an educated man. He’s sober. He’s homeless – a lifestyle that he said puts him on the street every day looking for meals and shelter.

But food is not the problem, he said. Neither is supplies. His problem is finding a safe place to reside, something that puts him into contact with police all the time.

“Once the cops know you are homeless, they are on to you,” Russell said, adding that law enforcement members are constantly shooing the homeless from public, and occasionally private, places.

He said he’s been stopped by police and asked to present his ID for no apparent reason while he’s walking down the street. He said while there are homeless who cause problems, he gets lumped into that same group just because he lives on the street as well.

“They think we are all the same, that we all do drugs and are alcoholics that don’t try to get jobs,” Russell said. “But I don’t drink, and I don’t do recreational drugs. I’ve tried to get jobs. I’ve tried to apply and have been rejected over and over.”

Russell preferred to go by only his first name. His statements are echoed by numerous homeless men and women who flock to the Salvation Army in Hickory most Tuesday nights for dinner.

But while Russell and other homeless use words like “harassment” when they speak of police, area law enforcement members say they must work from a point of law.

“You don’t deal with the homeless. You deal with the behavior of the person,” said Newton Police Maj. Kevin Yarborough. “If he is homeless and he is stealing, then it doesn’t matter if he’s homeless or he has a home in Rock Barn. The only time we deal with the homeless is when we get a call about a problem that’s already happening.”

In Newton, police are called for problems involving homeless in the area of Brady, D and Main streets the most. At businesses in that area, the homeless men and women who gather at storefronts have started disrupting the operation of the stores, Yarborough said.

He said police have responded to calls about stealing and blocking the doorway, recurring problems that business owners have given law enforcement the authority to act on.

“If they are on a piece of private property where the owner doesn’t care, we have no authority to run them off,” Yarborough said. “But it has become a problem at stores in that area. They have given us authority to act, which is a form where they give us consent and permission to act. When it’s closed, there is no trespassing. (During business hours, if they are not there doing business, we tell them to go and move on. Where they gather, we get problems.”

In Hickory, officers are called for similar situations, said Hickory Police Capt. Gary Lee.  

Lee said disruption problems involving alcohol and soliciting money from the public are the two main issues HPD responds to.

“When they run into problems is when they have alcohol usage and are soliciting funds from people. We have to respond to that,” Lee said.  

HPD also asks the homeless to relocate when police are called by private business owners, Lee said.

But Russell and other homeless said they are also told to move from public places. He said it seems like there is no place to go sometimes.

“We need a safe zone where we can go and not get harassed by the cops,” Russell said.
Yarborough said as long as individuals are not causing problems in public places, they are free to stay. Once they start causing disruptions, however, they will most likely be asked to leave.

“If they want to go sit in the courtroom when it’s bad weather, they can as long as there is no problem with their behavior,” Yarborough said. 

“But let’s say they go into the courtroom and start sleeping in the bench and start snoring. I’m going to guarantee you that there’s not one judge that wouldn’t ask them to leave.”

In addition to homeless shelters in Hickory, recreation centers and libraries are two places that Yarborough said the homeless can go. However, he said they must abide by the law when they are there.

Tent city?

Some homeless are in favor of a tent city or safe zone where they can permanently reside.

One homeless man from Hickory, Lowell Benson, suggested a church or city invest in a “tent city” for the homeless, where they can reside safely.

He said an organization could buy a piece of land and have guards monitor tents in shifts so that only sober people can enter the area.

Russell, too, has voiced his affection for a safe zone where the homeless can permanently stay.

Law enforcement members agree both ideas have issues.

“I’m sure there would be security issues and there would also be some sanitation issues,” Lee said.

“We’ve had these places where we’ve seen tent cities in the woods and the property owners don’t know about it. Several times we’ve been asked to go out and ask them to leave. If you’re going to camp on somebody’s land, you need to OK with that property owner, but most of them are not going to allow it because it’s a liability to them.”

Yarborough said the idea concerns him.

“As a police officer, I would be dead set against it,” he said. “As a police officer, I would think that would create a problem for the other properties around it. It’s not up to the Salvation Army or anybody else to provide this for them. I would not, as a police officer, want a tent city set up for the homeless unless it was strongly regulated. And it’s not a matter of the tent city, it’s a matter of the problems it creates for the properties around it.”

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