Kick ’Em When They’re Down: Criminalizing Homelessness, or, Who is Greensboro for?

She had glass stuck in the backs of her thighs. All up and down her thighs, shards of glass.

I was kneeling on the bathroom floor, using the tips of my fingernails like tweezers, trying to pluck it out. Above me, I could sense that she was wincing — but only a little, she knew better than to let her tough demeanor slide.

She had been thrown into a hotel room’s mirror. It had shattered and she had fallen into the pile of broken glass. A lamp was thrown, but missed her head.

The commotion got the attention of the front desk attendant, who kicked her out of the room. It was cold — January if I remember — not snowing, but the midnight air was still like it had frozen in place. She had no other place to stay. The hotel had been the plan.

“We need to go to the emergency room,” I said.

She told me — no, no — that she was fine, it only hurt a little. She made me promise not to call the police. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” she insisted, brushing her hair out of her face. I thought it was a funny phrase — an old man phrase — and it sounded awkward coming out of her mouth.

She was 19 and homeless. That hotel room was her only bet for a place to stay that night. I knew what she had to do to get room for the night, I knew why she had been thrown, I knew why I couldn’t call the police, and I knew what danger she was in. After all, this wasn’t my first rodeo either.

The people I know who are in the most danger in Greensboro are the people who have been rendered homeless by the petulant forces of a cruel economy. Lacking shelter makes you incredibly vulnerable. You rarely have a private space and if you do it has no locking door — or at least not one that locks from the inside. You are always, consistently, in space that is not yours — it belongs to the “public,” perhaps, but you are keenly aware that the “public” is not you, now that you are homeless.

Just last year an older man who was homeless was jumped, beaten and left for dead right off Elm Street. He spent months in a rehabilitation clinic learning to walk and talk again. When he was finally recovered enough to be released, he was released back onto the streets, with a cane and new pair of sweats — slower and less able to defend himself.

Two years ago, I watched as a drunken bar patron laughed with his friends as he peed on the bag of a man panhandling — soaking the only picture the man had of his daughter in urine. I know a gay man who was living on our city’s streets for years and was attacked so regularly that when I think of his face, I cannot think of the color of his eyes, because in my memory they are swollen and splotched with bright red. I know a disabled man who walked with cane and was hit crossing a busy street — the car sped away. He died in the hospital. His name was Doug. I adored him.

Just the other week, a man returned to his tent in the woods near downtown to find all of this belongings had been pulled out of his tent, strewn about on the ground. His tent had been slashed and someone had left a note: “Don’t sleep here anymore.”

I know a transwoman who carries three knives on her — “I know it is silly because I only have two hands, but as I walk I keep myself ready to grab one, just in case.” I know people who carry sticks, bats. Yes, I know people who carry guns.

I would too.

And everyone I know on the streets has been robbed over and over. I can’t even begin to count the rapes.

In Greensboro, the narrative about homelessness has been turned upside down: we are to fear the girl who is picking glass out of her legs instead of fear for her. Instead of seeing the people in the most extreme and vulnerable situations in our city as people to be protected from further harm, a small group of people are pushing for there to be laws to punish them…and they are playing on our fears to do so.

Despite no one citing any concerns or incidents and egged on by a small but vocal few invested — literally — in downtown, the Greensboro City Council is considering adding ordinances that further criminalize homelessness. At first blush, the proposals seem harmless — I don’t want someone (whether it be a person or a business) taking up the whole sidewalk so I can’t pass and I certainly don’t want anyone to be coerced or threatened. But when you create rules and regulations without the grounding of an actual incident — that is a clue that more malicious forces are at play.

The more rules on the books, the more likely you are to break them — or, more accurately, the more likely someone else is to feel you are violating them. Every kid with a too strict teacher knows that; every woman with an controlling partner knows that. Adding laws that could lead to fines and arrests because of the specter of something bad happening is flawed governance. Worse, it is a method devised to kick folks when they’re down.

We know that the impetitus behind these proposals is not benign. We know that this conversation started when homeless-advocate-turned-arbiter-of-righteousness, Amy Murphy, began to make the case to move “the homeless” out of downtown on the premise that it was hurting business and “job growth.” Murphy was virtuously shouted down on her myopic and thinly veiled proposal, and most of Greensboro turned away from her in disgust. But through this proposal, she found a new fan base of downtown businesses and developers and Amy — known for her tenacity and sheer energy — rebranded the conversation into an issue of panhandling and public safety, themes onto which the City latched. If this were an issue of public safety, then the proposed ordinances would extend beyond downtown, and into neighborhoods like where I live. We have not forgotten Amy’s original proposal to resegregate downtown Greensboro; we know that only the tactics have changed. These ordinances are a set up.

The thing is, fines and arrests only keep the poor poor. Layering on court dates, jail time and criminal records (the shackles of poverty itself) on poor folk banish them from the land of prosperity to the land of poverty with a no-hope permanency that is, simply, inhumane. It is the simple math of survival: If you have an unpaid fine hanging over your head, you get scared to go to court because you can’t figure out how on earth you will pay it. If you have a failure to appear warrant tacked to your name, you get worried about going to the food pantry or shelter. If you catch an actual charge related to this stuff, you can’t go and apply for jobs or even housing. Benign seeming policing and mundane ordinances, laws and public safety are the stuff of polite society; they are the arbitrators of class; the henchmen of segregation; the wardens of poverty.

Who is in danger is not the only conversation that has been turned on its head in Greensboro: The even more important conversation of who we are as a city and who we want to be has been compromised by this process.

I love downtown Greensboro. Friday nights when I get off work, I will bring my son down to LeBauer park to play or to watch a movie on the lawn. Between meetings I will grab a cup of coffee at the Green Bean, and when I have guests in town I never fail to bring them to Elsewhere. Unfortunately, most of downtown is already out of reach to me, as a working class single mother — a sad fact, as my small family is much more representative of the realities of Greensboro than Murphy, Mathany, Carroll, Zimmerman, Craft, or Hoffman or any of the others who appear to have advanced these ordinances could ever be.

Greensboro has an opportunity to pay homage to the righteous and noble parts of our Southern history that have lifted community, insisted on justice, and put our city on the map as ethical, moral and progressive: The launch of the lunch counter sit-ins and development our nation’s only Truth and Reconciliation process to date.

We have the opportunity to reject the purposeful exclusivity that has underpinned policy from Andrew Jackson’s land policies to the National Housing Act of 1934 to the GI Bill — all of which provided opportunity to white families while cutting people of color and other marginalized people off from building wealth. We have the opportunity to recognize and denounce our racist history: the first loitering ordinances in America were a part of the South’s post-Civil War “black codes” — laws enacted to restrict newly freed black people in public spaces.

As we craft the future of downtown Greensboro, we have the opportunity to pave a different road, far from the path of fear mongering that was worn into place by Jim Crow. It is the legacy and fall out of these antiquated policies and ordinances that we are in fact grappling with today, not the scourge of panhandling and homelessness.

I will always believe that this debate has never been about homelessness, businesses, or panhandling. Instead, it is a moral question for our city of who we want to be.

Poor folks, and especially those who are unhoused, don’t need more policies that would only further the marginalization layered on them, like charity piles on blankets and talking heads heap on platitudes. They need to be heard.

If Greensboro was listening, they would hear solutions. They would hear the choir of voices rising up from faith organizations, insisting that we are our brother’s keeper in all spaces, not just some. They would hear the voices of Peter Daye, George Scheer and Nick Loflin, entrepreneurs and visionaries who insist that a revitalized downtown can and must include all people. They would hear the voices of Liz Seymour, Bob Newton, Jim Kennedy, Jane Enoch, John Shore, Tiffany Dumas, Jenny Hudson, Cornelia Montaque, Ondrea Mosely, Lamar Gibson, T. Dianne Bellamy-Small and all the others who actively worked to create purposeful safe space for people experiencing homelessness in downtown Greensboro — and to the thousands upon thousands of supporters of the IRC today.

They would hear the Homeless Union of Greensboro. They would hear folks experiencing homelessness clearly articulate the barriers they face. They would hear gratitude for the help — the meals, the shelter in the winter, and the job leads — but they would also hear a request for real change. They would hear that people want to escape homelessness, but that they don’t want their slots in the homeless lottery to be filled by the next person facing eviction, domestic violence, abuse or criminalization. They would hear people being asked to be let in, not pushed out.

If Greensboro was listening, they would hear that folks living on the streets are scared. They are scared for their safety. They are scared for the safety of their bodies, of their minds and of their families and friends. In Greensboro, real people with hearts and minds and blood and pulses are scared… not just businesses and investors.

I hope that counts for something here.

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