Being homeless is not a crime. Here’s how Durham plans to handle tent camps

Local government leaders are working on a policy for handling homeless camps so they don’t face the same issues as they did when they shut one down last year.

In early 2018, a homeless encampment formed by the Durham Freeway exit off West Chapel Hill Street downtown.

The people living in tents on the right-of-way owned by the N.C. Department of Transportation were eventually connected with services by the city, and others left after NCDOT put up a no trespassing sign.

The site was cleaned up, and nobody lives there now. But it was several months of figuring out what to do and not wanting to push the camp residents out too fast.

City and county leaders heard a draft policy for dealing with encampments on public property on Tuesday at their Joint City-County Committee meeting.

Hanaleah Hoberman of the city’s Community Development Department said encampments seem to be increasing in Durham and nationwide. However, while some cities criminalize those camps, that’s not what Durham is planning.

What the policy does

The policy would apply to city-owned land, county-owned land, and state-owned land within the city or county. Only the city manager or county manager could request removal — just because there is an encampment on public property doesn’t mean it would be removed. Only those posing a public health or safety challenge would be subject to the policy, Hoberman said.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson liked the policy being developed from guiding principles: that everyone deserves a safe, healthy place to live; that Durham values all residents’ quality of life; that people should be offered a viable, low-barrier housing option; and that encampment responses should be based on the camp, not unilateral.

The problem they ran into with the Chapel Hill Street encampment, Johnson said, was that people living there had nowhere else to go. Just removing them from the site would not be helping them, she said.

The proposed policy would also try to avoid encampments in the first place by reducing barriers to homelessness services. The biggest shelter in Durham has already begun doing that.

Urban Ministries of Durham has stopped requiring sobriety for people seeking shelter, instead basing admittance on behavior.

The plan also calls for a new encampment lead agency. It would have 60 days to build trust with the camp residents and develop a plan for housing and services. Personal belongings still at a site afterward would be collected and kept for a month at a storage location accessible by public transit.

However, if an encampment poses a significant health hazard or is blocking a right-of-way, the disbandment could occur in less than two months.

Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said that, for a homeless person’s health and safety, she would like to see a shorter time frame for providing services.

Hoberman said the 60 day period is also time to make sure the encampment doesn’t just move to a new location, and that enough trust has been built to successfully connect people with services and housing options.

Mayor Steve Schewel said the encampment in 2018 was a difficult situation.

“I thought the patience and thoughtfulness around that was really exemplary,” he said. “There was a lot of talk around what we call criminalizing this, and we did not choose that direction.”

What’s next

The city’s Homeless Services Advisory Committee has already approved the policy. Next, the City Council and the Board of County Commissioners will need to endorse it at upcoming meetings. They will also need to figure out how to fund the encampment lead agency. Hoberman said they’d like to have a contract with the new agency by early 2020.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.