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‘Like sticker shock’

ASHEBORO — Representatives of 16 departments and agencies met Aug. 30 to talk about the problems related to the homeless population, particularly in and around Asheboro.


The meeting at the Randolph County Emergency Services facility was called by Darrell Frye, chair of the Randolph County Board of Commissioners, and Asheboro Mayor David Smith.


According to an invitation from County Manager Hal Johnson, he and Asheboro City Manager John Ogburn would lead “a special fact-finding educational session concerning the homeless issues currently impacting our communities.”


The invited representatives were seated in a “U” facing the front and each was invited to speak on what they’re seeing daily, how homelessness affected their agency’s ability to provide services, and what resources are lacking that could improve or resolve the issues.


“I hope by the end of the day we know what to do, how to fix the problem.” Frye said.


Smith called homelessness “the biggest issue we’ve had to face, the most serious issue. … It’s time to get serious about how to fix it.”


R.J. Williamson, director of the county’s Information Technology (IT) Department, showed on a screen how homeless camps have been plotted on a map of Asheboro. He said it’s important to add to the map as more information is available. “It integrates with public safety agencies,” he said. “We can overlay overdose calls to see if there’s a correlation.”


Jared Byrd, deputy chief of Randolph County Emergency Services, said his department has been working with the Addressing Department to assist on 911 calls. The purpose is to find out where homeless camps are and how to get to them in cases of emergencies. He said they have tracked 300 calls with reports that mentioned “homeless.”


Randolph County District Attorney Andy Gregson called those living on the streets either “homeless by choice or by life choices. They’re a tax on the court system and the jail. Some are sex offenders. They take up a lot of resources. … If they’re charged and released (on unsecured bonds), it’s hard to find them for court dates.”


Wheeler Buckingham of State Probation and Parole said there is a statewide increase in the homeless and they’re moving from urban to rural areas. “What would help us is integrated housing with mental health help,” he said, “to provide a safety net but not to draw others” to Randolph County.


Major Phil Cheek, head of the Randolph County Detention Center, said the jail population increases as the weather gets colder. Homeless people sometimes commit minor crimes just to get into jail, where it’s warm and they get fed. Cheek said drugs are a problem with the homeless.


“We try to find a place for them when they’re released but we can’t force them to go,” Cheek said.


Smith asked Cheek what happens when a homeless person is intoxicated when they’re brought to jail. Cheek said they’re processed even if they’re under the influence of substances. “We have no choice if they’re charged.”


Asheboro Fire Chief Willie Summers said about 20 percent of their calls are attributed to the homeless. Sometimes, he said, at a fire call it’s determined to be a “warming fire. There’s an increase of abandoned house fires in the winter.”


During the past year, Summers said, the firefighters answered 50 overdose calls and 32 victims received Narcan, which counteracts the drug effects. Most of the 32, he said, refused treatment.


Interestingly, Summers said that the homeless camps tend to be communities that police themselves. One fire call, he said, came about when the “community” burned the possessions of someone who was being banned from the camp.


“We treat each call as an emergency,” Summers said. The balance comes, he added, in “how to minimize the impact (of homeless actions) while providing help when it’s requested.”


Asheboro Police Chief Mark Lineberry noted that “a lot of people are feeling unsafe by panhandlers.” The problem in enforcement, he said, is that “being homeless is not a crime.” 


Business owners fear that the presence of homeless people will drive away customers while causing unsanitary conditions and needles in the area.


“Some (homeless) say a drug problem is why they’re out there,” Lineberry said. “We’ve identified 18 (homeless) camps. When you move them from one area, they go somewhere else. 


“We’re learning how to deal with the homeless and working with other agencies for positive effects. But cleanup is the hard part.”


Asheboro Code Enforcement Officer Chuck Garner said his dealing with the homeless is “practically a daily thing, going into a camp. I spend time with them, build a relationship with them, give them a few days to move. There are (hypodermic) needles everywhere. I don’t know what good it does to move them (since they show up in another location to build another camp).”


Rodney Trogdon of Project Safe Neighborhoods said his organization is “trying to oversee a reentry program from prison. We find them resources and a place to stay. The reality is there are not enough resources for the demand. We have to make a difference in some way.”


Susan Hunt, founder of Keaton’s Place which helps substance abusers find resources, said they put out water for people, “hoping to draw some who come for help. We make a connection, tell them what we do and build a relationship. We offer free transportation (to treatment facilities). A lot of them don’t want to go. We will transport them back after treatment. We’re doing everything to get them out of town.”


Chip Womick of Keaton’s Place said, “An overwhelming majority of them have mental health or substance abuse problems. They’ve been doing (drugs) so long and the drug has such a hold, they’ve burned their bridges (to family and friends) and don’t want to get help. They believe they have no hope except to self-medicate. 


“Some might say they’ve had enough (of the homeless lifestyle). But they’ve got to have a home and a job. That’s a tremendous barrier. The places doing the most are faith-based initiatives. I don’t think government can be the only solution. Untreated mental health is a big problem.”


Jerry Earnhardt and Billy West of Daymark Recovery said that when they are out of rooms for clients, they’re sent to other counties. Last year, Daymark treated 2,793 patients while another 2,000 from Randolph County went to other counties for treatment. Daymark averages two homeless patients a day. When a patient has no medical insurance, they can’t afford medication.


Angie Polito of the Community Navigator Program said, “People come to see me who are living on the streets,” she said. Rapid Rehousing is a program that can help but the problem is, it’s based in Johnston County and requests can go unanswered for a time. “Even if they’re approved, there’s no place for them to go.”


Polito said she is working with the police and fire departments to give them names of homeless that are being tracked.


Martica Craven of Randolph Health said homeless people are “doing destructive things in the hospital, having aggressive behavior. We’re using more security measures, trying to keep entrances safe and limit access to people not needing access.”


After all the representatives had spoken, Johnson asked, “Where do we go from here? It’s obvious we need more resources.”


Frye said, “This is like sticker shock. We didn’t have this before. Did we become a draw or have they been run out from where they were?”


Hunt said homelessness is a national problem. “Now it’s in everybody’s face. It’s been here.”


Smith said, “We need to stop enabling panhandlers. There are services for them. But some don’t know how to ask or where to go for help.


“Those who create problems, we don’t want. I’m frustrated because I don’t know the answer. How are we to attract people to the world’s largest natural habitat zoo, to build a community to be proud of?”


Gregson said that if a homeless person is charged with something minor and they want to go back to another county, “I’ll dismiss their case. But I will not condone the breaking of law, including property crimes. We’re going to prosecute them. The judge can decide what to do with them.”


The session ended but the conversations continued around the room and outside. There was no word on when the next meeting will take place.