ASHEBORO – A week after a community gathering of agencies to discuss the problems of homelessness in the city and county, those discussions continued during the Sept. 7 Asheboro City Council meeting.
City Manager John Ogburn introduced Police Chief Mark Lineberry, Fire Chief Willie Summers and Code Enforcement Officer Chuck Garner to talk about their takeaways from an Aug. 30 roundtable among representatives of government, law enforcement, health care, non-profits and private entities.
"This is more than a law enforcement problem. This is a human problem," Ogburn said.
Lineberry shared that calls are up for suspicious persons, welfare checks and trespassing, but larceny and theft calls have decreased.
"The citizens are calling and bringing their complaints," Lineberry said. "They want to feel safe. Businesses want customers and want them to return."
Council member Kelly Heath said homelessness has become a frequent topic between business owners at the Downtown Asheboro, Inc. meetings. She highlighted Garner's statement that he's been to an encampment just about every day. "It speaks to what the city is continuing to try and do to address this issue," she said.
"What I gathered from the meeting," Summers said, “there are some solutions that are currently employed in the city of Asheboro. For example, our faith organizations taking front and center."
He said the fire department's resources can be tied up by non-emergency calls related to homelessness. He said that they are working with the county's IT department to create "ghost addresses" so that they can speed up response times for calls with no permanent, listed address.
Mayor David Smith said he is worried about firefighters putting themselves at risk when they go into a heavily wooded area, especially if they have to carry someone out with them. Council member Eddie Burks said he visited a homeless encampment and saw the number of discarded needles.
Ogburn talked about the difficulties people face confronting substance abuse. "If you have an opioid addiction and you're homeless, you're at the bottom of the pyramid," he said.
Multiple times, they brought up people traveling from other parts of the state. Lineberry said that when police compiled a spreadsheet based on their interactions with homeless persons, roughly 40 percent said they were born in Randolph County or lived there.
Garner, Summers and Lineberry said that word-of-mouth and the hope for hospital care or treatment services has attracted people from other regions. "I spoke to a lady who came from Greensboro," Garner said. "She came here because she was told this is a good place."
Lineberry said some people have difficulty finding transportation after they receive treatment. Summers highlighted Keaton's Place and Daymark Recovery for giving people transportation back to their original residence after they complete treatment.
"The caveat there is that they must complete the treatment before they receive transportation," Summers said.
Smith said, "Our shelters shouldn't be that. Citizens of Asheboro and Randolph County shouldn't be providing money or any other types of support to a bunch of people from Wilmington or Asheville."
Council member Bill McCaskill asked Summers about the dangers of people breaking into abandoned structures and setting fires, specifically the former Acme-McCrary Mill. Summers answered that firefighters have a good record of reporting abandoned structures to code enforcement so they can keep people out of those.
Garner said that this month, code enforcement closed two camps in the wooded area along East Dixie Drive. A third was closed in midtown. He uses an app that can mark a camp's location so he can find the property owner and determine if that area is within city or county limits.
"When a camp leaves, it looks like a landfill," Garner said, which he said requires special equipment for code enforcement. He's working to get in touch with property owners to speed up the clean-up process.
Ogburn listed the needs identified at the meeting:
— Enhanced enforcement against encampments.
— More transitional housing.
— More prosecutorial action.
"Homeless persons involved in crime have to be placed in the judicial system," he said. "Even for minor offenses."
He said there will be another meeting. It has not been scheduled yet.
Mayor Smith said their reports emphasize that the city is actively working to address homelessness, and he expects more in the future. "It personally offends me when so many people in Asheboro say we're not doing anything. I can testify that with police, fire and code enforcement, we are doing some stuff and we're trying to do more. It's just that important."