Editor’s note: This story was originally printed May 4, 2007. William Major was killed Thursday night.
Text: On a good day, William Major says, he panhandles enough money for food, cigarettes and alcohol.
But Major, widely known as “Chilly Willy, “ has cost taxpayers considerably more than the spare change he collects in the tree-lined neighborhoods of Dilworth, Myers Park and Plaza-Midwood.
A recent study identified Major, Charlotte’s most notorious vagrant, as one of 81 chronic offenders who clog Mecklenburg County jails. Together, they cost the public more than $1 million in 2005.
Authorities have jailed Major at least 20 times since 2005, records show. At $109 a day, incarceration alone has cost taxpayers nearly $10,000.
That doesn’t include time spent by the courts or police, or the price neighbors have paid for his disruptive behavior.
In January, for instance, a judge banned Major from uptown Charlotte’s Fourth Ward after longstanding complaints about his begging and reports that he threatened passersby during drunken, profanity-laced tirades.
Such an impact on a city by one man, some officials say, proves that locking up the mentally ill, homeless and drug addicted is expensive and ineffective.
Even the judge who recently banned Major from Fifth to 11th streets doubts her decision will provide a permanent fix.
“You want to find a solution so you don’t see someone again, but with serious addictions sometimes, sadly, there’s nothing we can do, “ Mecklenburg District Judge Nancy Black Norelli said.
Mecklenburg County’s mental health agency has proposed borrowing an idea from other cities such as Raleigh and San Antonio, where some such offenders are taken to crisis centers instead of jails. Officials credit the centers with reducing repeat offenses and helping more people into treatment programs.
A strain for jails
On a recent day, Major exhibited the same kind of behavior that has landed him in jail time and again.
Major, immediately recognizable because of his tangled hair and beard, begged for money at a coffee shop in Dilworth.
At night, he said, he sleeps behind a liquor store or sneaks into the back of cars or a hospital waiting room.
Major, 52, refuses to go to alcohol rehabilitation. Why won’t he stop drinking? “I wish I could tell you, “ he answered.
Like others identified in the chronic offender study, Major has committed mostly nonviolent crimes in recent years. Some neighbors consider him a harmless, familiar face.
However, Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, who is pushing for more jail space, said he authorized the study to show how many beds he and the others take up.
One night last month, Mecklenburg jails housed 2,460 people. With bed space for 2,150, about 300 slept on the floor.
Officers, meanwhile, have arrested Major and some others so often, they know them by name, said Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Capt. Jeff Estes, whose district Major once frequented.
“Nobody is under any illusion that the criminal justice system is working, “ Estes said. “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem.”
‘Jail is the dumping ground’
The chronic-offender study, which focused on people arrested seven times or more in 2005, found that nearly 40 percent of the offenders had alcohol problems and 83 percent suffered from mental illness.
Their jail stays cost taxpayers $811,000. When resources for police and court are factored, the total rises to $1.5 million, said Paul Friday, a UNC Charlotte criminal justice professor who helped conduct the research.
“Jail is the dumping ground for the mentally ill, “ Pendergraph said. “They just keep bringing me people, and I don’t have any space for them.”
Charlotte’s shortage of affordable housing for the poor makes matters worse, officials say.
Don Moore, Mecklenburg mental health court coordinator, said almost all of offenders he sees are homeless. Most are disabled and cannot work to pay rent for a house or apartment, Moore added.
Some do receive monthly Social Security disability payments ranging from $400 to $500, but in Charlotte the typical two-bedroom home with rent and utilities costs $707 a month.
“They act out in group therapy, so many (treatment) groups don’t want them, “ Moore said. “We have no place to put them. It’s a real shame.”
A troubled path to the streets
Major has spent much of his life in trouble with the law.
He grew up in Charlotte and by age 15, he was sent to a training school for youthful offenders, said his brother John Major of Charlotte.
John Major recalls his family moving dozens of time, but he was too young to understand why. He said the family was not well off, so when it could not afford things his brother wanted, “he would steal them.”
Later, he said, William Major spent 15 years in prison for armed robbery and other offenses.
After his release, William Major started living on the streets when he could not find work, his brother said. It is unclear how long William Major has been homeless, but social workers estimate it’s about 20 years.
John Major occasionally brings his brother food and money, but most family members do not keep in contact with him.
“I don’t know what to do, “ John Major said. “He goes to rehab and he just walks out.”
Megan Coffey, an administrator for Mecklenburg County Homeless Support Services, is trying to find Major a place to live. Coffey fears that alcoholism will take his life.
She acknowledges he is verbally abusive when upset, but said he has a tender side too.
“He has cussed me out many times, but he always comes back to apologize, “ Coffey said. “When he’s sober he can be charming and insightful. That’s what motivates me to help him.”
Recently, Major walked through Dilworth looking for food until a social worker picked him up and took him to a nearby restaurant. Sometimes, he said, he looks through Dumpsters “because that’s where the good food is.”
Major said that one day he plans to leave the streets. Until then, he said, he’ll stay where he can.