Homelessness trends in Greensboro

For many in the Guilford Community, the Folk Festival in downtown Greensboro is a weekend of fun-filled events with incredible live music and vibrant art. For Marcus Smith, it was a death sentence. During the 2018 Folk Festival, Marcus Smith went to the police for help during a mental health emergency. Instead of receiving the help he needed, he was hog-tied and killed. The police officers talked for minutes over his lifeless body until realizing that he stopped breathing, and even then it took them more than three minutes to administer CPR.

Unfortunately, this horrific injustice is not singular in its nature –  it reflects the larger systems of oppression, violence, and cruelty directed to people experiencing homelessness in Greensboro. Guilford College Professors Krista Craven and Sonalini Sapra address this issue in their work “A Safe Place to Stay: Combating Homelessness, Police Violence and Jim Crow in Greensboro”, a call to action written by themselves, Justin Harmon, and in collaboration with the Homeless Union of Greensboro that extensively outlines the problems that people experiencing homelessness in Greensboro face and the political steps needed to address them. They break down their work into a ten-point platform, calling for self-determination of people experiencing homeless, the right to life, dignity, due process, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, housing, living wages, healthcare, a safe place to stay, and equal treatment.

The first, a call for self-determination emphasizes the importance of centering the thoughts and experiences of people who experience homelessness in the dialogue around homelessness. They are the only ones who truly know the full extent of the oppression that they face, so they must be included in the policy-making process. This means going past “band-aid solutions” of temporary, underfunded shelters and creating long-term solutions to end police violence, harassment, and discrimination and the lack of access to basic resources of shelter, healthcare, and fair employment.

Police treatment of people experiencing homelessness in Greensboro is dehumanizing, discriminatory, and destructive to the community. Data from the GPD shows that in Greensboro African Americans are stopped and searched at a rate of 2.08 to 1 compared to white people, even though police found illegal drugs and weaponry on white people more often. Of the cases where the GPD has used violent force on people, 84% identify as African American. This racial profiling and violent treatment is exacerbated for African Americans experiencing homelessness. In the interviews conducted during the research, one man recalled his “face go[ing] straight to the ground” after the cops threw him down and getting a “bloody nose” before the police found his identification and realized that they were arresting the wrong person. Instead of apologizing, one officer simply said “wrong one” before leaving, leaving him with a broken nose and little faith in the justice system. Ten officers are especially prone to targeting people experiencing homelessness, as a median of 39.7% of their citations and arrests are made against people experiencing homeless, and on average 64.6% of these were against African-American people. Officers like Micheal Chandler Miller and Detraveus Forte far surpass this average, arresting African American people experiencing homelessness 100% of the time they arrest or cite people experiencing homelessness.

People experiencing homelessness also lack quality legal representation, with 80.8% in the study saying that they do not have access to legal advocacy. This perpetuates the cycles of poverty and homelessness as in NC people are not guaranteed lawyers for class 3 misdemeanors of civil trials, including second-degree trespass, violating city ordinances (i.e urinating in public), and eviction which are some of the most common citation and arrests against people experiencing homelessness. The cash-bail system, which is used for 67% of misdemeanors in North Carolina keeps people experiencing homelessness in jail simply because they cannot afford to get out. For evictions, tenants that have adequate legal counsel have double the chance of overturning their eviction than those who have to represent themselves due to lack of fiscal resources. This is clear racial and class-based discrimination, leading the researchers to call for the mandatory implementation of a written-consent policy for all consent searches done by the GPD, local government investment in non-police emergency response teams for handling crisis of substance abuse, interpersonal conflicts, and mental health, government funding of legal representation for low-income people, and the elimination of the cash bail system.

In the research presentation, they made it abundantly clear that homelessness does not end with heavy criminalization and over-policing – it only ends with a home. In order for this to be attainable for people currently experiencing homelessness people have to be paid a living wage, have access to safe, quality temporary housing, and healthcare. The average rent for an apartment in Greensboro has increased by 35.3% since 2011 while the minimum wage has stayed stagnant. According to their research, a minimum wage worker in Greensboro would have to work at least 105 hours a week for 52 weeks a year in order to simply afford an average-rent apartment. That is 15 hours a day, every day, for almost the entire year. This impossibility prevents those making a minimum wage from being able to access basic shelter, leading researchers to call for a living wage in Greensboro. The only way to end homelessness is for people to have access to a permanent home.

Temporary “band-aid” fixes of shelters and hygiene facilities are often treated as a long-term solution to homelessness when they lack adequate resources to even be quality temporary solutions. According to a survey in “A Safe Place To Stay”, 69.8% of respondents said they could not access shelter because of overcrowding, 38% said they feared violence and harassment in the facility, 38% said facilities lacked proper hygiene, and 27.9% said they did not meet the required demographic. Overcrowding and lack of funding as led shelters to ask people experiencing homelessness to sleep on plastic mats, or to sleep sitting up in chairs due to lack of floor space. This is unacceptable and can create serious health problems stemming from sleep deprivation. Health problems can also be created or exacerbated by the unsanitary conditions of shelters, as many respondents reported dirt, filth, and bug infestations in sleeping areas that are made worse by overcrowding people into these areas, threatening their health and safety. Overcrowding, along with the over-policing of homeless service sites creates a violent atmosphere that further threatens the safety of people experiencing homelessness. Many can not even access these subpar resources because they do not fit the demographic required. This year, 2018-2019, during the winter months not a single shelter was designated for women. To address these many issues within the system, researchers call for the creation of more designated shelters for women, couples, and LGBTQIA folks, enforcement of HUD regulations for homeless service providers, establishing a consumer advisory board for shelters, and all-around greater-funding for facility’s improvement.

The research done by Professor Krista Craven and Professor Sonalini Sapra shows the immense need for education and advocacy around the issue of homelessness in Greensboro.