August 10, 2014

Charlotte tables plan to remove uptown benches used by homeless

The city is tabling a proposal to remove benches near The Square uptown so it can focus on creating a “consensus strategy” for dealing with the growing numbers of homeless using the intersection as an outdoor shelter.

The city is tabling a proposal to remove benches near The Square uptown so it can focus on creating a “consensus strategy” for dealing with the growing numbers of homeless using the intersection as an outdoor shelter.

Charlotte Center City Partners sought the delay just a week after going public with a plan that would remove benches temporarily, while also putting more social workers on the streets to register homeless people for social services and housing opportunities.

Many uptown residents supported the plan in the face of growing Center City crime associated with the homeless. But others criticized the idea, noting affordable housing and social services programs are in dire need of money to help the chronically homeless.

“We have tabled bench removal as it has created a distraction from the real overarching issue,” Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said in a statement Friday. “I am confident that we can arrive at a plan that is appropriate and respectful of all people with or without homes.”

The city will work with Center City Partners and the Center City Homelessness Task Force to create a strategy on the homeless, he added.

Charlotte’s Department of Transportation was considering the bench proposal, which called for removing benches along the Trade and Tryon streets intersection for about 30 days.

The intersection is popular with the homeless who claim security guards for nearby corporations such as Bank of America make them feel safe.

The issue was difficult politically. Several council members this week were uneasy about discussing the issue. Democrat Michael Barnes, an at-large member, said earlier Friday he was OK with removing the benches so long as the needs of the homeless were addressed.

“For me that seems like an easy issue,” Barnes said. “It’s clearly not in the city’s best interest to have the homeless living at Trade and Tryon.”

The proposal to remove the benches was credited to the Homelessness Task Force, which is convened by the Center City Partners. It includes representatives of Charlotte’s housing nonprofits, as well as law enforcement and mental health service providers.

Carson Dean of the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte said he supported tabling the bench idea.

“Removing benches was always a small, temporary measure to create some immediate relief from the congestion – and all of a sudden it became the big piece,” Dean said. “The big piece is trying to get people the services they need to get off the streets. So we can focus on that now. It was never about benches.”

Still, Center City Partners intends to help outreach efforts by providing money to pay part of the salary of an additional social worker for the Urban Ministry Center. The ministry recently began sending teams out during predawn hours to find people sleeping on uptown benches.

The goal, ministry officials said, is to register the homeless for services and supportive housing that is readily available for some groups, including veterans and people with HIV. A shortage of housing remains for other groups, including the disabled.

Dale Mullennix, executive director of the Urban Ministry, said tabling the bench plan will give agencies within the Homelessness Task Force an opportunity to look for longer-lasting solutions.

Center City Partners CEO Michael Smith said the bench idea was an attempt to “disrupt a pattern” of homeless adults living on benches near Trade and Tryon. The goal, he said, was not to push them into other areas of uptown but to get as many as possible into health programs, job skills classes and permanent housing.

A crime analysis recently conducted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department showed that complaints of disturbances, loitering for money, alcohol violations and assaults are up near Trade and Tryon. Aggressive panhandling also is on the rise, officials said.

The increase in crime is linked in part to the homeless fighting among themselves, as well as criminals such as drug dealers preying on the homeless, officials said.

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