Albemarle Council hears concerns on homeless population, safety

Published 9:22 am Tuesday, January 23, 2024

A number of Albemarle business owners expressed concerns to Albemarle City Council on Monday night over what they described as an influx of homeless persons to the city.

Prior to the public comments, Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Sue Hall announced that a meeting to explore solutions to the city’s homelessness problem has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Feb. 13 at City Hall.

“Homes of Hope is the agency primarily responsible for taking care of the homeless, so I reached out to them last week,” she said. “We have a list of 25 different agencies who will be involved with this meeting, and we also invite anyone who is interested and wants to be a part of this effort to attend.”

“What is the city’s policy on camping and loitering?” asked Travis Alley, who owns a business on South Depot Street. He noted several instances in which his building has been broken into and vandalized.

“The city follows state law,” replied Mayor Ronnie Michael. “We’ll do what the state law says and what the district attorney will prosecute.

“There are varying court opinions on whether we can remove someone from public property,” he continued, “so that’s in a state of flux right now.”

Alley said the problem is bigger than many realize.

“There’s a bigger issue than just a few (homeless) people here and there,” he said, adding that one of the homeless persons in the area of his business has been seen carrying a hatchet.

“I feel like other cities are sending us people on the bus,” Alley added, encouraging council members to “see the number of people getting off the bus with backpacks.”

“I’m basically in the same situation,” said Peter Henkenjohan, who owns adjoining property at 403 W. Main St. and who said he had filed his second police report for some items stolen from his building.

“They’ve cut through a fence on the back of our property,” he said, adding that he had seen a number of persons urinating and defecating in sight of his building.

“I don’t want to have customers coming down there and having to see that all day,” he added.

Henkenjohan also expressed concerns with “constant meandering” between various agencies that provide free support for the homeless.

“There’s free breakfast at Grace’s Place, free lunch at Christian Ministries, free showers at the YMCA, and then back to Grace’s Place for free dinner. And they also get free needles, many of which end up in my front yard.”

Mary Wysocki recounted being “cornered” in the parking lot of her business at 127 S. First St. by a panhandler.

“Our employees, even myself, don’t feel safe, and that’s a major problem for us,” she said, adding, “there’s a huge rumor that homeless people are being bused in to Albemarle from other cities…I’d suggest that someone from the city put eyes on this situation and either quash or validate the rumor.”

“I’m experiencing the exact same issues,” said Amanda Suhr, who operates an insurance agency on South First Street.

“I’ve had my business for 25 years, and I don’t feel safe there any more,” she said, adding that because of panhandlers in the area, she has been forced to keep her business door locked, with customers calling ahead to have her let them in.

“I’ve asked folks getting off the bus what brings them here,” Suhr stated. “They have told me they were just given a ticket and sent here because there are outreach programs that can help them.”

All speakers expressed concerns over police response to the situation. Police Chief Jason Bollhorst said the department is beginning foot patrols in the area “immediately.”

“They will be out there this week,” Bollhorst said, “and if we’ve got to call in additional officers on overtime, we’ll do that. We will take whatever steps are necessary.”

Toby Thorpe is a freelance writer for The Stanly News & Press.