Move Homeless Services Away from Downtown?

Gulp.  Okay, I’ve written some controversial stuff before, but this one will probably take the cake.

I want to tell you about a conversation I had last week.  At Monday morning breakfast – in case you don’t know, my little group of volunteers serves at 7:15am smack dab in the middle of downtown Greensboro, a very visible location.  Most of the time, I don’t actually serve food.  I spend my time mingling.  That way, I have time to talk to people, hug them, and mostly listen to them.  That’s one of the things folks need most in these kinds of circumstances.

If there is someone new, I generally take a couple of minutes to see what’s going on with him or her.  Last Monday, there was a new guy with salt and pepper hair and clear, blue eyes.  We struck up a conversation.

Standing there in my breakfast-serving chicken hat, I said, “Hey, man!  What’s going on?  Are you new in town?”

“Yeah, my name is Jerry.”

I said, “What brings you to Greensboro?  Where did you move here from?”

Jerry responded, “I’m here looking for work.  Came from Raleigh.  Couldn’t find a job there, so thought I’d try Greensboro.  I’m originally from Charlotte.”

“So you’re traveling around?”

Jerry said, “Yeah, I’ve been all over.”

I asked, “Oh, yeah?  Are you living outside or do you have a place?”

Jerry said, “I’m outside right now, but I won’t be as soon as I can find a job.”

I said, “Have you lived outside in other cities?”

Jerry responded, “Yeah, off and on when there’s no work.”

Always curious, next I said, “Tell me about homelessness in other cities.  How is it?  What goes on?”

Jerry had a lot to say about this.  Here’s what he said: “There are homeless people everywhere, but it’s better to be homeless some places than others.  A place you don’t want to be homeless is Columbia, South Carolina.  You know what they do over there?  They have a loitering law.  If you’re caught homeless inside the city limits, the first time, they lock you up overnight.  The second time, they take you to the county line, drop you off and tell you never to come back.  You should see Nashville, Tennessee.  It’s overrun with homeless people.”

Then he rattled off the top five cities in the nation for homeless people, New York, Los Angeles, etc, but I can’t remember what they were.

I said, “How is it in Raleigh?”

Jerry said, “Not bad, but I couldn’t find a job.  They’re doing something new over there, trying to deal with it.  They’re doing homeless services away from downtown, you know, because it affects business.”

I responded, “You think having homeless people downtown affects business?”

Jerry said, “Well, yeah.  Of course it does.  So Raleigh decided they would centralize everything a couple of miles from downtown.”

I said, “You think that’s okay?’

Nodding his head, Jerry said, “Yeah, I think it’s a pretty good idea.  I don’t think things should be anything close to how they do it in Columbia, but I think Raleigh has a pretty good compromise.  Everybody needs a job.  If it brings more jobs, yeah.”

We were standing near the Monday breakfast “seconds line,” where folks line up to go through again if we have food left.  Six or eight people were listening, so I formed a focus group of sorts, right there on the sidewalk, asking people what they thought.

I asked a general question, “If locating homeless services away from downtown, say, over by DSS (Department of Social Services on Maple Street – everybody knows where it is), would get more businesses to come to Greensboro and create more jobs, would y’all be in favor of that?”

Several people nodded in agreement.  We chatted about it for a while.  I said maybe we could have a kitchen where all the groups that provide meals could serve food. People particularly liked that idea.  (I didn’t say this, but thought later that we should have plenty of computer terminals there too, so folks wouldn’t have to use the Central library across from the Children’s Museum.)

I said, “Okay, if ya’ll think this is a good idea, we need to tell City Council.  That’s who sets the policies and makes those kinds of decisions.  It would take some doing to move something like this forward.  What if we all go to the Council meeting and tell them we’d be okay with that?  That we want to see Greensboro do well economically.  That what everybody needs the most is a job.  What do y’all think?”

Jerry spoke first, “When?  I’ll be first in line.  We need jobs.”

I said the next Council meeting is not for a couple of weeks, and explained what it’s like to speak from the floor, that everyone can speak for three minutes, etc.  Folks looked a little uncomfortable with that, like many people do with public speaking.  My friend, Dallas, spoke up, with his wide smile, “No!  I’m not speaking at no City Council meeting!  No!”  And he shook his head.  I love Dallas.  Great guy.

So our little focus group agreed to talk more tomorrow about the possibility of going together to the Council meeting.  I’m guessing there will have been talk about this subject in the homeless community this week.  I can’t wait to hear all about it.

I do think this is a conversation that needs to move forward in Greensboro.   When people have jobs, we all do better.  I took time to check out what’s going on in Raleigh.  Raleigh solution to homeless services

Maybe it’s time for Greensboro to compromise.  And stop cutting off its nose to spite its face.

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