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After city decriminalization, uptown residents say public drinking, defecation is out of hand

Uptown residents say more people have been sleeping in Fourth Ward Park in the last two years.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
Uptown residents say more people have been sleeping in Fourth Ward Park in the last two years.

Residents of Fourth Ward in uptown have said their neighborhood has deteriorated significantly over the past 18 months, as people without homes have been emboldened to drink openly and defecate and urinate in parks and sidewalks.

The problem, they said, stems from the Charlotte City Council’s decision last year to make those offenses non-criminal. That means police can’t arrest people for those offenses and can only write citations.

Fourth Ward resident Lee Ann Roughton said the council’s decision has been a disaster.

“My granddaughter and I were going to the Discovery Center to spend a few hours there,” she said. “And there was a female that — right in front of the Discovery Center — to the right of the entry, she publicly defecated.”

In 2021, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed its own version of criminal justice reform.

The legislation decreed that ordinances passed by North Carolina cities and towns would all become non-criminal — unless local officials voted to make them criminal misdemeanors again.

In Charlotte, the City Council, which has a Democratic majority, went to work. They voted to continue making infractions like shooting a gun in the city a criminal offense. But the city allowed defecating and urinating in public, as well as drinking in public, to become non-criminal offenses, enforceable only by a citation.

At the time, city attorney Patrick Baker said “a big focus was to not criminalize poverty.”

Arit Bey, who lives in senior housing in Fourth Ward, said the quality of life for her and neighbors has deteriorated.

“People are breaking into the apartments, they are living in the storage room,” she said. "They are urinating and defecating as we speak. We just had our stairs pressured-washed because people keep using the bathroom on the stairs and stuff.”

Jim Renegar lives in a 19th-century house next to Fourth Ward Park with a wrap-around porch. He said people often hang out on his porch. Sometimes they sleep there.

“My wife got up to go for a walk in the morning, and there’s a guy sitting on the porch,” he said. “If it’s raining we don’t ask them to leave, we let them stay there.”

Trespassing is still a criminal offense, but Renegar believes he is dealing with it because of a general increase in lawlessness after those other behaviors that have been decriminalized.

And he said police are hesitant to deal with people sleeping on his front porch because they’re homeless.

“Whose issue is that?” he asked. “It’s all of our issue. But the city completely ignores it.”

At a recent City Council meeting, Fourth Ward residents recently asked council membersto make these offenses criminal again.

They said they don’t expect police to necessarily arrest offenders, but they argue that CMPD needs to be able to at least threaten people with possible arrest if they don’t comply.

Fourth Ward resident Chris Connelly, an attorney, said the city no has little ability to enforce basic standards.

“You can literally go into (the) center of Trade and Tryon and pull down your pants, as long as you don’t expose yourself, and defecate in the middle of the square — or urinate, or drink, or all three, and there’s no laws against that right now,” he said.

While CMPD officers could write that person a ticket, Connelly said that’s meaningless if the person doesn't have a home or any money.

“It’s like getting a parking ticket when you don’t have a car,” he said. “It means nothing.”

Fourth Ward Park is a focal point of the neighborhood. The park, which has a small playground and walking trails, is still overall in good shape. It doesn’t look like scenes from cities like Los Angeles, where people without homes have made public spaces their own, with tents and shelters made of plywood.

But a number of the benches are used as beds. There are beer cans and other trash in the bushes.

On a morning this week, one man, Terrace, was leaned up against a brick wall, smoking a joint just below the balcony of a townhouse overlooking the park. He works at the transit center and lives in a hotel now, but has been homeless in the past.

He said the park — and uptown — have gotten rougher in the past two years.

“Every night, boy, you can see two or three vicious or violent acts,” he said.

He would be OK with more police.

“Obviously you understand that’s a line of defense,” he said. “And we try and use every line of defense that’s out there, you know, to be safe. We may have to sleep on a park bench. But if two police officers are back there for whatever reason, you feel a lot safer because you know they are going to interject if things are going on.”

Baker, the city attorney, said CMPD originally did not recommend keeping public drinking and public defecation and urination as criminal offenses when the city was reviewing its ordinances.

CMPD chief Johnny Jennings said in a statement last week that he supports reimposing criminal enforcement of some ordinances to address quality of life issues in the city.

But even before the changes in the law, CMPD had moved away from what’s known as “pro-active policing,” which includes enforcing minor infractions like public drinking. The total number of arrests made by CMPD dropped by half from 2009-2020.

One reason is that routine interactions can be deadly.

Last week, two private security officers confronted a man that police said was urinating on a wall near the Epicentre and the main bus station uptown, where there are public bathrooms. When police arrived there was a confrontation; police said the man pointed a gun at an officer, who then shot and killed him.

Michael Smith, of Center City Partners, said CMPD may need the power to arrest people to create what he calls a “balanced civil environment.”

He said police need “to be able to ensure that level of civil behavior and just civility among each other.”

Carol Hardison, of Crisis Assistance Ministry, said she’s torn over how to address the overall problem.

“I lived in Fourth Ward for a time,” she said. “I could immediately empathize with the neighbors.”

She wonders whether the increase in defecation is due to the closing of the main library uptown, which is being rebuilt. People who are homeless often used the bathroom there.

Perhaps the city should build public restrooms, she said.

“Having worked in this field for a couple of decades now, there’s no short-term solution. There’s no single fix,” Hardison said. “Clearly we all know there is a deep need to be investing in housing and services. Because clearly anyone who is doing this needs housing and needs support.”

Hardison also questioned whether the city should move forward with creating a “social district” in Plaza Midwood, where people could drink alcohol in public from open containers.

Since public drinking is a problem uptown, sanctioning it in other parts of the city could lead to problems, she said.

Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said a city council committee will review whether to make such offenses criminal again.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.