Durham County

Homeless man at Durham Freeway camp: 'I got nowhere else to go.' Is there a solution?

Durham and the NCDOT are trying to figure out what to do about a homeless camp at the Durham Freeway and West Chapel Hill Street.
Durham and the NCDOT are trying to figure out what to do about a homeless camp at the Durham Freeway and West Chapel Hill Street. The Herald-Sun

Kendrick Scott and Melton Melvin call the right of way at the Durham Freeway and West Chapel Hill Street home.

Scott, who has lived there about five months, said he helped with a recent city cleanup of the homeless camp, and would keep cleaning the space if the city would give him the tools. He wants people who walk by to say, "They're living outside, but they're keeping the place clean," he said.

"I got nowhere else to go," Scott said.

He does not want to move to a heavily wooded area, and he likes being around people, he said. "We [are] homeless, and we don't want to go nowhere. ... Can we make this our home?"

Melvin, who has been at the camp about six months, also wants to stay. If he and others living at the camp are forced to leave, "I'm just gonna take off," Melvin said.

The fate of the half-dozen or so people at the camp is in limbo. Durham city officials have been trying to figure out what to do about the camp for several months. Now, the city says the next step is in the hands of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

In January, the NCDOT put up no trespassing signs on a grassy right of way near the on and off ramps at West Chapel Hill Street. The city had heard complaints about the camp and contacted the NCDOT, the agency's spokesman, Steve Abbott, said in January. The signs were placed to remind people that the right of way is state property.

At the time, Abbott said removing people was up to local law enforcement.

In an email this week, Abbott said the NCDOT had requested city assistance, but reiterated that the state's authority is limited. "As we said several weeks ago, our involvement ended with the placement of the signs. We do not have the legal authority to enforce no trespassing signs," he said.

The city thinks differently.

"The bottom line, though, is that this is state property," Durham Public Affairs Director Beverly B. Thompson said in a written statement. "The state has posted signs indicating that. At this point, it is up to the State to decide the next steps." Thompson said.

Wil Glenn, public affairs manager for the Durham Police Department, said police "must have written authorization from the state to remove people." Asked if the DPD was seeking authorization, Glenn said, "No decisions about next steps have been made."

In an email sent March 23, Abbott stated that a letter the DOT sent to the city in January after the signs were posted "serves as that written authorization." The letter was from J.R. Hopkins, DOT's division engineer, to Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield and Durham County Manager Wendell Davis.

"We would ask your assistance in enforcing the laws as it relates to the activities within the NCDOT right of way, particularly in the vicinity of Old Chapel Hill Road [sic.] and N.C. 147," Hopkins stated. The letter was not requesting the the city take immediate action at the homeless camp, Abbott stated.

City officials recently cleaned trash from the site, with the help of some of the residents. In an email to Steven Hicks, Durham's general services director, Kevin Lilley, manager of the landscape services division, said the site could be cleared with mechanized equipment, which he added "is simply too dangerous to be operated in proximity of the residents ... If we clear the site of vegetation that provides them a sense of cover, it is likely they won't return to this location, but we cannot clear the site with them on the premises."

Mayor Steve Schewel said the city wants to help the residents and he has heard of no deadline for their leaving.

Scott and Melvin showed a reporter recycling bins they had filled with beer and soda cans. They also showed a reporter what they called rat holes and said they had set several rodent traps. They also have a fire pit for cooking.

Scott showed a box containing packaged lunches. People frequently bring food for the camp residents, he said.

Since December, the city has been working with people living at the camp to get them housing and other services, Thompson said. Working with the county and nonprofits, the city has found housing for some of the camp residents, reduced the number from 12 to six, she said. "We'll continue to evaluate the needs, as they occur, to prevent this area from becoming a nuisance," she said..

"Cliff Bellamy; 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1