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Russell lives outside in a tent.
Heâs an educated man. Heâs sober. Heâs homeless â 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.
âOnce the cops know you are homeless, they are on to you,â Russell said, adding that law enforcement members are constantly shooing the homeless from public, and occasionally private, places.
He said heâs been stopped by police and asked to present his ID for no apparent reason while heâs 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.
âThey think we are all the same, that we all do drugs and are alcoholics that donât try to get jobs,â Russell said. âBut I donât drink, and I donât do recreational drugs. Iâve tried to get jobs. Iâve tried to apply and have been rejected over and over.â
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 âharassmentâ when they speak of police, area law enforcement members say they must work from a point of law.
âYou donât deal with the homeless. You deal with the behavior of the person,â said Newton Police Maj. Kevin Yarborough. âIf he is homeless and he is stealing, then it doesnât matter if heâs 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 thatâs already happening.â
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.
âIf they are on a piece of private property where the owner doesnât care, we have no authority to run them off,â Yarborough said. âBut 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 itâs 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.â
In Hickory, officers are called for similar situations, said Hickory Police Capt. Gary Lee. Â
Lee said disruption problems involving alcohol and soliciting money from the public are the two main issues HPD responds to.
âWhen they run into problems is when they have alcohol usage and are soliciting funds from people. We have to respond to that,â Lee said. Â
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.
âWe need a safe zone where we can go and not get harassed by the cops,â 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.
âIf they want to go sit in the courtroom when itâs bad weather, they can as long as there is no problem with their behavior,â Yarborough said.Â
âBut letâs say they go into the courtroom and start sleeping in the bench and start snoring. Iâm going to guarantee you that thereâs not one judge that wouldnât ask them to leave.â
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.
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 âtent cityâ 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.
âIâm sure there would be security issues and there would also be some sanitation issues,â Lee said.
âWeâve had these places where weâve seen tent cities in the woods and the property owners donât know about it. Several times weâve been asked to go out and ask them to leave. If youâre going to camp on somebodyâs land, you need to OK with that property owner, but most of them are not going to allow it because itâs a liability to them.â
Yarborough said the idea concerns him.
âAs a police officer, I would be dead set against it,â he said. âAs a police officer, I would think that would create a problem for the other properties around it. Itâs 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 itâs not a matter of the tent city, itâs a matter of the problems it creates for the properties around it.â