Attorneys may sue if police hinder effort to feed homeless

Two prominent Charlotte attorneys said Wednesday that they would consider filing a federal lawsuit against the city of Charlotte if police presence continues at an uptown street where volunteers feed the homeless.

Lawyers Bill Diehl and former county commissioners Chairman Tom Bush said complaints from nearby business owners do not justify disrupting the longstanding practice.

Diehl said the government should not harass people for exercising their right to be on a public street.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department started cracking down on misdemeanor crime in the area this month. Churches and volunteers have distributed food near North Tryon Street on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays for at least 10 years, participants said.

“If the city of Charlotte is … making it uncomfortable for volunteers or making it impossible for the volunteers to feed the homeless, then Bill and I are going to just have to have a chat with them or, if necessary, take a walk over to the federal district court to let everybody have a chat with the wizard in the black robe,” Bush said.

He said the presence of an armed, uniformed police officer is intimidating.

Deputy police chief Jerry Sennett said Wednesday that police are not trying to stop advocates from feeding the homeless. He said that it is not the intention of police officers to create an intimidating atmosphere or to harass anyone.

“We're there to protect the adjoining property owners based on complaints from them and make sure the feeding is done in an orderly manner,” Sennett said.

Complaints include allegations of drug dealing, fighting, and drinking, Sennett said.

A police sergeant earlier this week said the probability was high that volunteers would have to move their operation. Sennett said if volunteers found another location, the police would support their relocation.

The crackdown at “The Wall,” a concrete wall on Phifer Avenue, was the focus of Observer stories this week.

The wall was used in the past, in part, because it was on public property. But Mecklenburg County sold its office space in September to a developer.

Now police are trying to support revitalization in the area.

Diehl said that if organizers are forced to find a new location, parking lots of city and county buildings, which are close to empty on weekends, could be used.

City and county officials said they would think about it.

“If the advocates were to come forward to the county with the request, we would seriously consider that and try to think through what the alternatives and the options are,” said Janice Allen Jackson, general manager for community health and safety.

Both Bush and Diehl said they are willing to meet with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and other city and county officials to discuss potential solutions.

Sennett said he, too, would like to meet with the attorneys.

“We certainly don't want to be sued,” Sennett said.

Though Bush and Diehl are often courtroom rivals, preparing meals for the homeless has given them an opportunity to become close friends. Both arrive at Calvary Church in south Charlotte every Saturday around 5:30 a.m. to prepare meals in time for the 7:30 a.m. delivery.

Eva Walker, who has prepared and delivered meals at “The Wall” every Friday for the past five years, said she thinks a lawsuit is not the answer.

“Fighting will only make it worse,” Walker said. “We are all adults. We can come to agreement on something.”