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Leaders review tools to respond to homeless camps, city panhandling

A homeless camp off Howard Gap Road near Ebenezer Baptist Church is the frequent site of calls for service to the sheriff’s office.  [HENDERSON COUNTY CODE ENFORCEMENT] A homeless camp off Howard Gap Road near Ebenezer Baptist Church is the frequent site of calls for service to the sheriff’s office. [HENDERSON COUNTY CODE ENFORCEMENT]

 

Responding to an increasing homeless population, both city and county leaders are reviewing tools this week for cleaning up encampments of homeless people and preventing panhandling.

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners heard on Monday night from a code enforcement official and sheriff’s deputy on the “toolbox” the county uses to clear camps from private and public property. The Hendersonville City Council, meanwhile, was scheduled during its regular meeting on Thursday night to review city ordinances used to prevent panhandling, stalking, sidewalk blocking and other forms of intimidation.
Toby Linville, currently the county’s floodplain administrator and previously the chief code enforcement officer, explained that the county has created a website and brochure to guide the public in responding to homeless camps.
A complaint-driven process usually starts with a call to the sheriff’s office from someone reporting an encampment of homeless people, which can range from one or two tents to a dozen or more. County personnel and sheriff’s deputies will determine owners of the property where a camp exists and try to persuade them to sign an agreement authorizing sheriff’s deputies to act as their agent. With a signed agreement and posting of no trespassing signs, deputies generally first warn campers to clean up and move away, then can arrest them on misdemeanor trespassing charges, said Lt. Jordan Warren.
“It’s a horrific means of living,” he said of the camps deputies are called on to visit. “It’s absolutely disgusting trying to walk through there. At a lot of these we’re running across hypodermic needles out there.”
Two near Jackson Park and one a short ways off the Oklawaha Trail could imperil trail users.
“You’ve got people walking on the trails with their families,” Warren said. “Somebody on an impairing type substance — there’s no clue what mental state they’re in.”
The sheriff’s office also receives “tons of calls for service” that result in deputies picking up men and women wanted on active arrest warrants.
“We have people that are being arrested all the way from a misdemeanor to felony larceny and felony drug charges,” Warren said. “Stolen property’s recovered there all the time.”
Many calls are related to homeless camps off Howard Gap Road near Ebenezer Baptist Church, off Old Spartanburg Highway and the two near Jackson Park.
Deputies try to help the homeless if they can.
“If we can give them a ride, we’ll be more than glad to give them a ride,” Warren said. “We just can’t take all the belongings that they have. A lot of times they have several dogs or bikes or three or four backpacks. We just cannot put all that in a vehicle and give them a ride.”
Commissioners asked whether deputies are able to steer the homeless men and women to the many crisis intervention providers in the county. Often, the people in the camps don’t want to go.
“Some of them say that’s the lifestyle that they want,” Warren said. “They want to live out here and not have to answer to anybody.”

 

City tackles panhandling

The focus of a City Council discussion on Thursday night will review existing ordinances related to homelessness and panhandling and hear how they’re being enforced. They include:
• A city code section make it a violation to block or impede traffic on sidewalks and streets or to weave or dart through, around and in between occupied vehicles.
• A section of city code making it unlawful to solicit pedestrians or distribute items in city parking lots and the city parking deck. The ordinance bars such encounters because of the “limited space” for walking to vehicles and because people walking in the parking deck “could feel a heightened level of intimidation when approached by a solicitor or distributor.” The code makes it a violation to enter the parking deck or city parking lots for the purpose of soliciting money or signatures or distributing leaflets or pamphlets.
• A city code section making it a violation to harass or stalk people on streets and sidewalks, including following someone in an intimidating way, physically intimidating someone or surrounding, crowding or cornering someone who is using an ATM machine or parking kiosk.
• A section on disturbing the peace, defined as “loud and boisterous cursing and swearing or loud and vulgar language” and a section making it a crime to “knowingly start a fight, or to fight, or to commit any assault or battery” in a public place.

City Manager John Connet said he wanted to bring the issue of homelessness and how city police officers are responding to the council because “there’s different philosophies on homelessness. Some of our businesses don’t think we’re doing enough.”
Connet will open the topic up for discussion and for council direction “to make sure we’re doing what they want us to do.”
“It’s hard to arrest people for panhandling,” he said. “It’s a code violation. It’s not necessarily always criminal. There’s court cases that have said panhandling is a First Amendment right. The homeless issue is very complicated. Loitering statutes are unconstitutional now.”
And even in the instance where city code specifically bars panhandling in the parking deck and parking lots, “We’re not physically arresting people,” he said. “They get cited.”