Charlotte City Council met for a business meeting on Monday night, with one big topic on the agenda: ordinance recriminalization.
As was discussed at length during last week’s meeting, council was set to vote on resuming enforcement on a number of ordinances that had been decriminalized by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2021.
The recommendations handed down by the Housing, Safety and Community (HSC) Committee included ordinances related to panhandling, public consumption of alcohol, public masturbation, loitering for the purpose of drug activity, urination and defecation on prohibited property, unauthorized persons in parking lots, trespassing on motor vehicles and one called “behavior (in public parks)” that included setting any type of fire and lying or sleeping in a prone position on seats, tables or benches.
Following a couple of unrelated presentations and a closed session, council began discussions on recriminalization.
Tariq Bokhari made a motion to amend city code by reenacting criminal enforcement of all eight suggested ordinances, including the two that city attorneys had concerns about: unauthorized persons on parking lots and loitering for the purpose of engaging in drug-related activity.
Bokhari insisted that the goal is not to prioritize criminal enforcement but to have another option for folks who repeatedly violate ordinances. He said he supports non-enforcement efforts as well the founding of a “homeless court” to refer violators to service organizations outside the criminal justice system.
Dimple Ajmera made a substitute motion to reenact criminal enforcement of all suggested ordinances except for the aforementioned two that city attorneys were concerned about.
North Carolina 26th Judicial District Court judge Elizabeth Thornton Trosch was the first of 30+ speakers to address council. She said implementing criminal enforcement of the ordinances would only waste the time of everyone involved in shuffling poor people through jails and courts.
She added that the county’s six recovery courts already effectively serve as “homelessness courts.”
“Let us fight poverty and not the poor, fight discrimination not the disadvantaged, fight affluenza and the privileged not the underdogs,” said the next speaker to a large applause.
“It’s hard to be free without a place to pee,” said Greg Jarrell. “Your task as our elected officials is not to create the conditions for more arrests, rather it’s to provide the infrastructure for care, which brings about the condition for freedom.”
Jake Sussman, attorney with Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said many of the ordinances, including criminally restricting the ability to sleep or lie on benches, are legally dubious and enacting criminal enforcement of them will result in legal action.
Attorney Tim Emry said the policy change would give CMPD a blank check to arrest homeless people, “the same CMPD that brutally assaulted a woman outside of a Bojangles mere months ago.” He added, “You represent the people, not Center City Partners and Uptown businesses.”
Dr. Sarah Kinney with Myers Park Clinic spoke against criminalizing two ordinances: lying on benches and public urination and defecation. She said she is forced to turn people away from her organization’s shelter every single night into the cold because of the lack of beds in Charlotte.
A formerly houseless person said, “There are many people just outside our doors who are counting on us to do the right thing.” He said he remembers having to hold his bodily functions overnight because the city didn’t have public restrooms.
He added that the two places where he used the restroom when he lived on the streets have been torn down (the Uptown library) or will be torn down soon (the Charlotte Transit Center).
Deborah Phillips, founder of Block Love CLT, said any arrest of an unhoused person makes it less likely that they will find housing because it may seem like a minor infraction but for landlords every such incident is a reason to deny housing.
“This is not going to help our unhoused neighbors,” said Harper Ellis with Roof Above. “We’re going to stick people in the system forever.”
Joy Patterson with Roof Above said that, with 3,000+ people experiencing homelessness in Charlotte, our neighbors without homes are forced to do things outside daily that the rest of us are able to do inside and take for granted. She asked for a 12-month sunset provision to delay enforcement of the ordinances.
Liz Clasen-Kelly with Roof Above said leaders with her organization met with Friends of Fourth Ward and went with them to nearby encampments to find common ground. She said she’d hate to see a return to the time when police would regularly arrest homeless neighbors for trespassing and other minor offenses.
A neighbor with Friends of Fourth Ward was the first speaker to talk in favor of recriminalization. She said the policy change is about basic inappropriate civil behavior, and it is not always unhoused people violating these ordinances. “This is a bigger issue.”
Attorney Chris Connelly said he is against criminalizing homelessness, but he supports the recriminalization of the ordinances due to behavior he’s seen in the neighborhood. He brought a large photograph of feces next to a Little Free Library.
One woman was asked to leave the chambers after leading chants of “Shame” following Connelly’s speech.
Cedric Dean said any elected official or speaker in support of this policy change should be made to spend one night in jail or one night on a park bench to see if they still feel the same way. “These are people, not animals to be placed in a cage.”
A local public defender said that, while she appreciates the city’s non-enforcement efforts set to be enacted alongside recriminalization so as to provide support for homeless neighbors, “that’s like working with one hand while the other hand is actively undoing all the work.”
A Fourth Ward resident said she was confused by the opposition centering homelessness because most people she’s seen violate ordinances have been “rowdy sports fans, day drinkers, people leaving festivals” and the like. “This is not either/or, help these people or those people.”
With the public forum over, the city council was set to discuss the ordinances before voting. Mayor Vi Lyles asked that the crowd of people sit quietly and allow council to discuss the issues at hand.
“Believe me, every one on this council has the values that they would like to see us do something that’s really good for our community. We struggle with this all the time,” Lyles said.
Renee Johnson moved to amend the motion on the table to only enact criminal enforcement of two ordinances, trespassing on motor vehicles and masturbation in public, while delaying the other six suggested ordinances for six months while non-enforcement solutions could be pursued. The amendment failed in a 7-3 vote.
Dimple Ajmera highlighted all the work the city is doing in terms of supportive services, including installation of porta potties, restroom facilities, street outreach teams and rent subsidies, among others, and said she feels comfortable with her motion to implement enforcement of the six ordinances.
LaWana Mayfield said she supported Renee Johnson’s idea to only move forward with enforcing public masturbation and trespassing on motor vehicles but because that failed she could not support the substitute motion to enforce six ordinances or the full motion to enforce all eight.
“We can say all day on this council that we care about people. Action is a verb. We need to show people that we care about them,” said Tiawana Brown, adding that she has the same respect for her homeless neighbors that she has for the developers who come to council with plans. She announced that she was still a No vote as she had publicly stated from the moment she joined council.
Bokhari said it’s a false narrative to present it as a choice between criminalizing homelessness and poverty or saying it’s OK to defecate outside of people’s homes and businesses. He said installing restrooms is just a Band Aid and that the city needs more long-term solutions.
Marjorie Molina said she supports the motion and believes that homeless neighbors get blamed for behavior they are not responsible for. Ed Driggs agreed, stating that it seems like everyone is under the impression that the council is choosing between enforcement and engagement while they’re doing both.
“Enforcement is not going to fix this, I don’t think anyone thinks it will. But I do think that it sends a message to a lot of people who are not in this room tonight that we don’t think it’s OK — it’s not OK that we just have to deal with seeing something out there,” said Driggs.
Renee Johnson asked all those in attendance if they had used the bathroom throughout the day by show of hands, then asked if the threat of arrest would have changed the urgency in those situations. “What’s a person supposed to do?” she asked.
“If you’re in a different part of the city and you can pay $9 for a cup then public drinking is called sipping and strolling,” Johnson added.
Malcolm Graham said the issue isn’t black and white, “it’s always the gray area that we have to deal with,” and for him the gray area has to do with the public safety issues that arise from not enforcing these ordinances.
“We’ve come a long way since Tent City,” said Graham, leading to skeptical reactions from some in the chambers, including one person who responded, “No, we haven’t.”
The motion to reimplement criminal enforcement of six ordinances passed in a 7-3 vote, with Mayfield, Brown and Johnson the No votes. That’s all of the ordinances recommended by committee except loitering for the purpose of drug-related activity and unauthorized persons on parking lots.
Council will meet again for a zoning meeting on Feb. 19.
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