Police crack down where homeless eat

In an effort to relocate homeless from a developing area of uptown, police this month launched a crackdown on misdemeanors at a popular gathering spot for free meals.

“The Wall,” as it is referred to, on Phifer Avenue next to the Hal Marshall Center, for years has been a place of refuge for the city's growing homeless population. Advocates for the homeless bring cars full of food several days a week and set up tables to hand out meals and clothes.

The police, pressured by local property owners, began the new project to enforce misdemeanor crimes such as littering and trespassing associated with the meals. It is part of a larger effort to reduce crime in the area.

Sgt. Ozzie Holshouser of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said they're trying to move the meals to another location, though none has been suggested.

“If they moved this, I don't know where we would go for a meal,” said Don Fuller, sitting on the wall eating fried chicken Friday night. “A lot of people depend on this place to eat.”

It's a sticky issue that reflects Charlotte's ongoing struggle over how to balance the needs of its growing homeless community with continued efforts to revitalize uptown. Roughly 5,000 men and women live on Charlotte's streets.

The wall is near a key section of revitalization plans along the North Tyron Street corridor near Ninth and 10th streets. Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners, said the area is set for “an incredible transformation” over the next few years.

Flagship Capital Partners, for example, bought the 2-acre Renaissance Place apartments site and demolished the buildings. It plans to build residential, offices and retail space. In September, BB&D Investments Group bought the Hal Marshall Center from the county for another mixed-use development. The center continues to house several county departments.

Police said they're receiving a growing number of complaints from area property owners about the homeless. The owner of Rustic Martini bar, at North Tryon and Phifer Avenue, reported that homeless have loitered and urinated on his property, police said. The upscale martini bar opened last summer. Calls to the bar were not returned.

Members of the homeless community say the police are trying to eliminate one of the few places they have to get a hot dinner in uptown.

People say they've been eating at the wall since at least 1999. As many as 100 men and women lined up near the roughly 3-foot cement wall on Friday for a meal provided by Eva Walker, who said she's been serving food there for the past five years.

African Americans, whites and Hispanics ate fried chicken and spaghetti as two police officers stood near the Rustic Martini parking lot stopping the homeless from walking on private property.

Fuller, 46, who has been living on the street for more than a year after losing his job with a moving company, spoke with two other homeless men about the increase in police activity.

John Farrow, a 49-year-old former hospital chef who's been on the street more than a year, said he understood that some people are scared of the homeless and think they're all drug addicts and criminals. But he said many of the homeless are people like he and his wife who ran out of luck. They're trying to make it back on their feet, but they need a place to eat.

“It's like they're trying to push us out of town,” he said.

The men said police approached them while eating last Sunday at the wall.

Eddie Woods, 49, said officers told them they were loitering and would soon no longer be able to eat there. Fuller said one woman, who he described as an advocate, was handcuffed for standing up to the police and arguing for their rights.

Police said the woman was arrested for disorderly conduct after screaming at officers and blocking traffic.

“We're not trying to stop people from feeding the homeless,” Holshouser said. “We're trying to get the people to coordinate better. We're trying to get them to find a fixed location so they're not standing, congregating, littering.”

Homeless groups say they're sympathetic to the concerns of local business owners but said efforts can be made to help keep the area clean without having to stop the meals.

“The challenge is finding another location that is convenient for people who need to eat,” said Liz Clasen, associate director of the Urban Ministry Center. “As the uptown continues to develop, there are less welcome places for the homeless.”

The homeless can also get some meals at various churches as well as the Community Outreach Christian Ministries and Urban Ministry Center, both near uptown.

This is not the first time police have stepped up efforts to control the homeless population in uptown.

In 2003, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to panhandle within 20 feet of ATMs, outdoor cafes, banks, taxi stands and transit stops. Uptown benches were outfitted with metal bars to stop people from lying down.

Some advocates worry the increased pressure to move the meals could lead to the dinners stopping altogether.

Kenya Golden, a volunteer helping serve food Friday, worries about finding another place.

Said Golden: “If they moved the people who are trying to help the homeless, then they'll have no one else.”