Stanly agencies, citizens discuss ways to decrease homelessness

Representatives of Albemarle and Stanly County agencies that assist homeless and unhoused citizens met on Tuesday at Albemarle City Hall to discuss potential solutions. They were joined by representatives of local government, area businesses and concerned citizens.

Participants in the forum exceeded capacity of the Council Chambers at Albemarle City Hall and necessitated a live feed to an adjacent conference room where late-arriving attendees gathered.

Presentations were made by representatives of four agencies working directly to reduce homeless numbers through provision of services, assistance and control. These included Stanly Community Christian Ministry, Homes of Hope, Partners Health Management and Albemarle Police Department.

“The Department of Housing and Urban Development has identified four categories of homelessness,” noted SCCM Director Heather Kilde.

“These include the literally homeless, those at imminent risk of homelessness, those fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence and the homeless under other federal statutes,” she said, noting the first three categories comprise the majority of Stanly County’s homeless.

According to Kilde, her agency provides assistance to the literally homeless with food, daily meals and clothing, as well as help with rent and utility expenses for housed families in imminent danger of losing their domicile.

Homes of Hope Director Shanta Watkins summarized her agency’s homeless relief efforts, including the Community Inn (emergency shelter), transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, and in doing so spoke out on an allegation levied during public comment at a recent Albemarle City Council meeting.

“The statement has been made that homeless people come to Albemarle to stay because there are so many services here for them,” Watkins said. “That is not the case…why would they come here? We don’t have anything to offer the homeless; we don’t have public transportation where (they) can ride the bus all day, or shelter in subway stations.”

Watkins noted that for persons from outside Stanly, Montgomery and Anson counties, a three-day limit on shelter stays is enforced, and a plan to locate housing is set up for anyone who occupies the shelter.

“Every person who stays at the shelter must meet with our program director to create a housing plan,” Watkins said. “The first step is toward prevention and diversion, so if you have a relative, for example, we work on getting you somewhere like that, where you can go and live.”

Clients in one of the organization’s 10 transitional housing units are expected to “put some skin in the game,” according to Watkins, who added that the program has a 90% success rate in getting clients into permanent housing.

“They are required to complete a financial literacy course, to attend monthly meetings with a case manager who monitors their progress and to perform community service hours,” she said. “It’s a ‘hand-up’, not a handout.”

Teena Willis, housing manager of Partners Health Management, explained her firm’s role in homeless prevention and reduction.

“I’m here mainly to talk about our housing program,” Willis said. “We recently were awarded funding to operate a program called ‘Back at Home,’ which provides individuals with an opportunity to literally come off the streets and go into housing. The program then provides those individuals with supports.”

In addition, the organization manages Medicaid, state and local funds for those with mental health issues, developmental disabilities, substance use problems and traumatic brain injuries, as well as ensuring those covered by Medicaid, state insurance or who are uninsured receive “the best possible services.”

Albemarle Police Chief Jason Bollhorst was assisted in his presentation by Lt. Bryan Springer and Capt. Jeremy Clark.

“We are usually the first to be called when there is a problem involving the unhoused,” Bollhorst said.

He said the majority of such calls involve squatting, panhandling, soliciting and public urination/defecation, but even so there are limits to the actions APD can take on such calls.

“We must operate within the constraints of the United States Constitution, as well as state and local laws,” Bollhorst said.

According to Springer, foot patrols have been implemented in key areas, including the Greyhound bus stop.

“In the last two and a half weeks, only three people have come in by bus,” he said, adding that the three were not homeless and are Stanly County residents.

“Our officers do respond,” Bollhorst said, “but we can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”

Watkins reported the outcome of a survey sent to 24 service providers, with results indicating that affordable/supportive housing, assistance for individuals with navigating resources, coordination of services and prioritization of service provision as major needs.

Comments from representatives of Albemarle businesses centered primarily on issues they claim to have encountered.

“If we are going to feed the homeless, why don’t we require them to clean up (wrappers and cups)? That should be an expectation,” realtor Tom Medlin said.

Amanda Stewart, who operates a downtown business, expressed some of the same concerns.

“I’m constantly cleaning,” she said, adding that she has dealt with “trash, needles and human waste” in addition to panhandlers. “And, we have been working with our doors closed because we don’t feel safe.”

Michael Palmer identified a parking area on East Main Street as a particular problem area, and echoed Medlin’s suggestion on cleanup expectations.

“For the past two months, the parking lot between the library and the square has been full of cups and litter, but I never see anybody from the homeless community picking it up. Part of this is because of the (Downtown) Social District. But, if these people want a meal, why can’t they get a sharp stick and a bag and pick up some trash? My attitude toward them would change tremendously if I saw them out in the community doing positive things.”

Peter Henkenjohan, who spoke on the issue at a January City Council meeting, expressed his belief that homeless individuals should better respect the city and county and its appearance.

“The majority of them are not from Stanly County, and don’t care about the community,” he said, adding that “it’s our community that is feeding them…I’m not against homeless people who are seeking help, it’s those who don’t care that are causing problems.”

In reply, Kilde stated that more volunteers would help with problems such as litter control.

“We have more people in this room than we have in our entire (SCCM) volunteer pool,” she said.

Watkins added that panhandlers and loiterers are banned from using the Community Inn shelter, with Kilde stating the same policy for those frequenting the Community Table.

“Get us a picture of them, and they won’t eat,” she said.

Watkins urged those bringing allegations to be cautious as to whom they are accusing.

“Not all who panhandle, or who urinate out in the open are homeless,” she warned.

Bollhorst noted that while APD can charge individuals who publicly urinate or defecate, those making the charges will be required to testify in court. He also noted that first amendment rights restrict what actions can be taken against panhandlers.

“If all they are doing is asking for money, we are very limited in what we can do,” he said. “However, if they become aggressive, causing a reasonable person to fear for their safety, we can act.”

Two members of the audience reminded listeners of the dangers of stereotyping homeless individuals based on the actions of a few.

“My relationship with Jesus Christ is most important in relating to the homeless,” said Mark Weston. “We need to find out what people need…some people just need encouragement.”

Joe Carter, a counselor at Grace Place, reminded others, “It’s not us versus them,” and encouraged those present to “get involved” with the homeless, even if it’s uncomfortable, recounting that when asked for volunteers to assist with the homeless, one “very large” church with which he was involved had none step forward.

Connie Blalock of Glory Beans Coffee House cited a lack of men willing to mentor other men as a hindrance in providing a “hand up” to those in need.

“I can mentor other women, but I can’t provide men with the mentoring they need,” she said.

In closing, Albemarle Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Sue Hall, who moderated the discussion and comments portion of the meeting, stated that concerns expressed had been noted, and set a follow-up meeting for 10 a.m. March 12 to discuss needs and solutions. The meeting will again be at Albemarle City Hall in the City Council Chambers.

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