Imagine Center City and LeBauer parks covered with tents, tarps and shelters made of cardboard, pallets and the like. Now add to that all the people living in those shelters urinating and defecating in the park and on the sidewalks and streets downtown.
That is what the Homeless Union of Greensboro, which has been opposing the aggressive panhandling ordinance, is requesting.
During the public forums on passing an ordinance against aggressive solicitation in Greensboro, many of the speakers who said they represented the Homeless Union, along with being opposed to any ordinance regulating panhandling, said they were in favor of the Homeless Bill of Rights and a police protocol on dealing with the homeless.
None of the speakers at the three forums I attended went into any detail about the Homeless Bill of Rights or the proposed police protocol, but they did hand out copies of both.
The Homeless Bill of Rights includes this right: “The right to shelter oneself from the elements in a non-obstructive manner in outdoor public spaces.”
The Homeless Bill of Rights defines non-obstructive manner as “a manner that does not render passageways impassable or hazardous.”
So people would not be allowed to camp or build shelters on the walkways through the parks, but any open space in the park would be fair game. That might include the children’s playground in LeBauer Park, which has some fairly comfortable artificial turf. It never gets muddy and dries out quickly, so it would have some advantages over bare ground.
Opposing any ordinance regulating panhandling is somewhat understandable, but demanding the right to live in public parks making them undesirable to most citizens of Greensboro is extremely radical.
Even a year ago the City Council wouldn’t have considered such a radical idea, but the inability of the City Council to pass an ordinance regulating panhandling is a sign things have changed.
Marcus Hyde, the Homeless Union of Greensboro organizer, was involved in building tiny homes on public property being sold to a developer in Denver without permission or permits. The City of Denver destroyed the structures that had been built and arrested 10 people for trespassing.
The police protocol being proposed for Greensboro would give homeless people rights that the rest of the citizens of Greensboro don’t have – the right to urinate and defecate in public. According to the police protocol, homeless people would not be subject to arrest for public urination or defecation.
There are also some passages in there that wouldn’t be legal in North Carolina. The Homeless Bill of Rights states that the city ordinances would take precedence over the state statutes, and that isn’t true in this state. Cities are not “home rule” cities, they derive all of their authority from the state and the legislature has to approve any charter amendments. And that’s good news for the citizens of Greensboro because even if five members of the Greensboro City Council were crazy enough to vote for such a radical ordinance, you can rest assured that the North Carolina General Assembly would not allow it. Although considering how Greensboro has treated the legislature, it is possible that the legislature would allow Greensboro to suffer for a few months before bringing sanity back to the city.
Some West Coast cities have passed similar ordinances recognizing the rights of homeless people to camp in public and to urinate and defecate in public. It has made some areas of the cities impassable. The sidewalks are covered with homeless shelters and the sidewalks and streets in the area are covered with human feces.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan said, “That is not under consideration.”
City Councilmember Justin Outling said that he understood the Homeless Bill of Rights to be demanding the right to live in parks and other public spaces.
He said, “To be able to panhandle as they please and sleep wherever they want, that is consistent with the actual discussion we are having now.”
About the ordinance outlawing aggressive solicitation Outling said, “It seems like a no-brainer that we not allow people to harass folks as they solicit money from them, but we are getting opposition to that.”
Outling said, “Cities across the state have the exact ordinance that we area looking at adopting and have had it for years.” He added that at least two cities had adopted similar ordinances since the recent Supreme Court decision on free speech and they had not been sued.
He said that all the discussion on the solicitation ordinance had caused the Greensboro City Council to take its eye off the ball of the stated priorities of the council, which are jobs and economic development.
Outling said, “Hopefully, council can resolve these issues and get back to jobs and economic development.”
According to Outling, who is an attorney with Brooks Pierce, Cincinnati was recently sued by the American Civil Liberties Union over its ordinance. The ACLU asked for a temporary restraining order (TRO) and was denied.
The fact that the request for the TRO was denied indicates the judge didn’t believe that the ACLU was likely to win.
Outling said that claiming all solicitation ordinances were unconstitutional showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the law and that time, place and manner restrictions were placed on speech all the time.
Vaughan said that she believed hiring outside counsel and holding a series of public forums on the ordinance was the right choice.
She said, “We were told if we passed the ordinance we would be sued the next day.”
She said, “I believe we took the more conservative course of action.”