Agencies gather to discuss homeless solutions, dispel rumors

Representatives of 12 area agencies who serve the homeless gathered at Albemarle City Hall on Tuesday to discuss solutions to concerns voiced at a Feb. 13 meeting.

Attendance at this most recent meeting was considerably lighter than at the earlier one, with 32 participants, primarily agency representatives, assembled. More than 100 had attended the February meeting.

Stanly Community Christian Ministry Director Heather Kilde opened the meeting, and noted that littering, loitering and panhandling were among the major concerns having been expressed.

“While littering is not our main problem, we can all be part of the solution,” said Allison Hudson of Will’s Place, who announced that a weekly 90-minute cleanup walk has been implemented on Thursday mornings, starting at the Will’s Place headquarters on North First Street.

“This is a way the community can work together,” Hudson said, encouraging anyone wishing to participate to contact her at 980-581-8001.

Kilde added that SCCM Community Table participants will be barred from using the facility if they are determined to have littered, adding that several have already been warned after being caught on camera.

The problem of panhandling and solicitation of money at city intersections was discussed as well, with Kilde dispelling rumors that SCCM has persons collecting donations.

“We will never send out staff or volunteers to solicit,” she said, after a meeting participant recounted being approached by someone collecting for “the homeless shelter” while stopped at an intersection.

Brian Springer of Albemarle Police Department clarified that such collection is legal if it is done on private property (such as in a parking lot), and with the property owner’s permission.

“It is not legal on city streets and roads,” he said.

Robi Cagle of Open Hands of North Carolina asked if a center could be established as a gathering place for the unhoused during the day, to which representatives of Grace Place responded that laundry services are currently available there once a week, and that showers will soon be available.

“When people are treated less than human, it’s hard for them to be human,” Cagle said.

Some observations and accounts expressed by speakers at the Feb. 13 meeting have been investigated, but not corroborated, according to city officials, including accusations that homeless persons are being bused in on Greyhound.

“This Greyhound rumor has taken on a life of its own,” said Albemarle Public Information Officer David Fath, who added that in addition to police foot patrols being present at the bus stop during pickups and dropoffs, a surveillance camera was placed to monitor the stop as well.

“The issue has become politicized, and the accusations (of homeless persons being bused in) are simply untrue,” said Fath. “Our surveillance camera shows this.”

Kilde observed that having bus service has actually helped with homeless reduction.

“Having it (the bus service) has helped us return some folks to where they came, to send them back to family members who can help,” Kilde said.

Another rumor consisted of alleged sightings of a homeless man who walks the streets with a machete or hatchet.

“We haven’t seen anyone like that,” Jeremy Clark of APD said.

Instances of public urination and defecation, expressed in February, have been cited, but not in significant numbers, according to Springer.

“We have only dealt with two instances of this,” he said.

A Pee Dee Avenue resident stated that she has observed an “influx of homelessness,” along her street, to which Kilde responded.

“Many of these people are not homeless,” she said, adding that they may be traveling on foot between service agencies.

In some cases, agencies working to solve the problem have been criticized both in person and on social media, and rumors of “unsafe conditions” in the downtown have been propagated.

“People have attacked our nonprofit for attempting to assist the homeless,” said Hudson.

“People on social media have been blasting some of the agencies who seek to help,” Albemarle Mayor Ronnie Michael said.

“Downtown has been stigmatized by people who sit just behind a keyboard,” added Fath, who encouraged people to “get out and walk around and see.”

“That’s just a perception,” said Cagle. “Albemarle is not unsafe.”

No follow up meeting has been scheduled, although Kilde stated that the group may begin quarterly meetings to exchange information and coordinate efforts.

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