Monday marked the first Charlotte City Council meeting of the month, which meant council committee discussions, in which council members hold separate committee meetings throughout the day then meet at the end to review.
Council is doing committee discussions a little differently this year, hearing truncated presentations from committee chairs then spending a heavy chunk of the meeting having an in-depth discussion on one issue — in Monday’s case, the proposal to recriminalize some of the city’s ordinances.
Charlotte City Council’s Housing, Safety and Community (HSC) Committee voted 3-2 in January to recommend recriminalizing certain ordinances such as drinking, defecating and urinating in public, along with other ordinances previously decriminalized by default in 2022.
The committee’s recommended that eight ordinances be recriminalized in Charlotte including 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).”
The behavior referenced in the city parks entry includes setting any type of fire and lying or sleeping in a prone position on seats, tables or benches.
Local activist organization Action NC on Monday morning put out a press release calling on council members to reject the recommended actions, voicing concerns about the criminalization of poverty.
“Charlotte has a lack of public restrooms. The city government has known for years that it has a lack of public restrooms,” the release read. “Is Charlotte Government using its purported ‘Holistic Lens’ or its historically-proven Punitive lens in thinking that punishing someone for having to use the restroom with arrest should precede providing them with a place to use the restroom? Especially since the few options to relieve themselves have been cut by the demolition of the Uptown Library and soon the demolition of the Uptown Transportation Center.”
Council heard a presentation on the issue from assistant city manager Shawn Heath on Monday. He explained that the city attorney’s office recommended that they remove the ordinance about unauthorized persons in parking lots due to concerns that it could be unconstitutional.
The city has carefully worded its soliciting ordinance to criminalize behavior rather than speech, meaning it will be illegal to loiter or sit in medians and other spaces because asking someone for money is a protected act of free speech.
As part of its non-enforcement efforts, the city is contracting with Hearts for the Invisible to establish a street outreach team devoted primarily to case work with unhoused people in Uptown and establishing rental subsidies and supportive services for 10 clients from Uptown.
The city is exploring a partnership with Hope Vibes to increase bathroom access for people in Uptown, funding repairs needed to get the Hope Vibes bus, which features a bathroom, sink and shower, back on the road.
The city will also add two porta-potty at East 11th & North College streets and are currently exploring other areas that would be effective. The two porta potties will be up and running next week.
Staff is also recommending that the city fund the purchase of two Portland Loo restroom facilities and has received a quote for those.
Tiawana Brown said she appreciated some of the non-enforcement efforts proposed by Heath, but she holds firm against recriminalization of any of the ordinances. She said her biggest concern is the broad language that leaves decisions up to police discretion and subjectivity.
Dimple Ajmera praised the “truly comprehensive plan” as presented by city staff. “This is not either/or, it’s not enforcement or support, we are doing all of it,” she said.
Ajmera suggested that, if the move is approved during next Monday’s vote, the policy shouldn’t go into effect until March 1 to give nonprofits and other on-the-ground folks some time to inform residents struggling with homelessness about any changes.
She also suggested that the city expand the hours of the Civilian Assistance Response Engage Support (CARES) Team, which comprises licensed social workers who respond to low-level calls for service instead of police officers, as the team is currently only active Monday-Friday from 7 a.m.-3 p.m.
Malcolm Graham called the plan a win/win. However, he was disappointed that the city attorney recommended removing language about recriminalizing an ordinance about loitering in parking lots, adding that he regularly gets calls from frustrated lot owners.
City attorney Patrick Baker said the concerns come from the fact that there is no way to prove criminal intent of people standing around in parking lots. If they’re involved in crime then they’re already subject to other laws.
Ed Driggs addressed Tiawana Brown directly, saying he heard her concerns but doesn’t believe anyone could accuse this council of not caring about people in poverty. He insisted there are many unhoused people who don’t break these ordinances and some who do.
“At some point you’ve got to have the ability to actively intervene … police officers are being challenged by members of the public to do something, and right now they can’t do anything. I want them to use restraint but have the option [for enforcement],” says Driggs.
Tariq Bokhari wanted to further explore changes that could lead to an 11-0 vote that would encapsulate everyone’s desires on council rather than settle for a split vote.
He floated the idea of launching a separate court for folks that are violating these ordinances that would be more familiar with their circumstances and potential services where they could be referred rather than thrown into the judicial system.
LaWana Mayfield asked for details regarding dollar amounts in the proposed partnerships. Heath responded that the contract with Hearts for the Invisible would be $500,000 for a street outreach team and $1 million in rental subsidies and case work for 10 clients struggling with homelessness in Uptown.
In conclusion, Brown addressed council one more time, stating, “The experts will say that those who are closest to the problem are going to have the solutions, but the problem is we leave them out often … we leave them out too often.”
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