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Charlotte City Council to vote on restoring criminal penalties for public urination, drinking

Kenneth Beck sits on a bench in First Ward Park in uptown.
Elvis Menayese
Kenneth Beck sits on a bench in First Ward Park in uptown.

Charlotte City Council is set to vote Monday on reinstating criminal penalties for things that include sleeping or lying on a city park bench, public urination and possessing an open alcohol container in public spaces. Although the ordinances are not aimed specifically at the homeless population, many shelters fear the group will be most impacted.

On a recent morning, Kenneth Beck sat on a bench in a park in uptown wearing a blue beanie. He rested his back on a bag that had a blanket tied to it, hands crossed, legs tucked up to fend off the cold. The last few nights had been tough for Beck, who missed his bus to Washington, D.C.

“Every night is a struggle. I sleep in different places every night. The first night out here, I just stayed awake and made it to the library to spend the day a little bit,” Beck said. “The following night, I slept underneath an underpass, and last night, I found a hole in the side of a building somewhere. So, I wouldn’t get in trouble.”

Beck is heading to Washington, D.C., from Miami in search of help to improve his situation.

Beck only stopped by in Charlotte, but said he's concerned the City Council’s vote will result in arrests for people just trying to survive.

“Criminalizing someone for being alive doesn’t sit right with me at all. I think it's not right to go that far. Without offering alternative solutions where one might be able to be human,” Beck said.

He said alternative solutions should be things that enable people to maintain their self-worth.

“There should be something along the lines of public housing to make sure no one falls below a certain threshold of human dignity,” Beck said. “And as a result, since we don’t have that infrastructure, we have people outside sleeping on benches and using the restroom anywhere they can get the chance.”

In 2021, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a law changing many misdemeanors to non-criminal infractions, unless cities chose to keep the criminal penalties. Since the change took effect, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police can’t make arrests and can only write citations for offenses like urinating in public.

Last year, uptown residents began complaining to the City Council that more people have been urinating and defecating in parks, on streets, and on steps, hurting their quality of life.

Residents of Fourth Ward uptown say the city of Charlotte should not have decriminalized public drinking and public defecation and urination last year.

The city plans to add portable restrooms on North College Street and 11th Street in uptown to help tackle those concerns. Some advocates say those measures are like placing a Band-Aid on the problem. Liz Clasen-Kelly, CEO of the Roof Above shelters, said their system is full, and she would like to see investments in new types of shelters to get people off the streets.

“One of the types of shelter we're advocating for is non-congregate, meaning that people would have their own room,” Kelly said. “So, sometimes folks struggling with significant mental illness, that's a less intimidating environment to come in.”

The city is trying to partner with Hearts for the Invisible, which helps support unsheltered individuals through street outreach support. Kelly wants to see those services increased but said it can take time to pay off.

“Uptown really does have the highest concentration of people living outside. I think, anywhere in our community,” Kelly said. “And street outreach is not a fast process often, but it’s a process of building trust and relationships, getting to know someone, and then connecting them with services.”

People could also be arrested for drinking alcohol or having an open container in public if the city council votes to restore criminal penalties. Kelly said it’s worth considering the long-term effects of arresting people for participating in what is often considered a social activity.

“Alcohol is not illegal, and of course, many people enjoy a glass of wine or a beer at night. So, people experiencing homelessness who don’t have a home to do that in, I think that is just something to consider,” Kelly said. “The second is to consider the impact of people getting arrested multiple times for things and how that impacts their chances of getting housing.”

If the city council votes in favor, Kelly said she would like to see a delay in enforcing the criminal penalties to communicate the message to those who will be most affected. That’s something City Council member Dimple Ajmera suggested in a meeting last week.

“We have an effective date of March 1st. It would be a more humane response because this will give our nonprofits and our partners the opportunity to get the message out about access to public restrooms, where they are located,” Ajmera said. “Getting that information is absolutely critical to ensure that we're having a humane response to our unhoused population.”

Rob Davis runs into the distance as his 10-year-old son tosses a football to him at Fourth Ward Park in uptown.
Elvis Menayese
Rob Davis runs into the distance as his 10-year-old son tosses a football to him at Fourth Ward Park in uptown.

Rob Davis and his 10-year-old son tossed a football at Fourth Ward Park last week in uptown. Davis and his family live in an apartment that overlooks the park. Davis said he understands why people would be in favor of criminal penalties as a way to maintain the city’s appearance, but he has concerns.

 “Uptown, there’s a lot of environments people want to be in. That’s not from the city, but when you have that in the middle, I can understand it being an issue because it’s a deterrent,” Davis said. “But I don’t think it being a criminal offense would be the answer to the problem.”

Davis said a focus should be on finding holistic solutions instead of addressing the symptoms.

“Why are people homeless? What are those few things? And how can we, as a city, as a group, as a people, figure out how to ease that pain?” Davis said. “We might not be able to solve it 100%. But I think if we put our minds in terms of easing that pain, we would have a greater city, a greater country and people will be, I think, more at ease than they are now.”

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Elvis Menayese is a Report for America corps member covering issues involving race and equity for WFAE. He previously was a member of the Queens University News Service. Major support for WFAE's Race & Equity Team comes from Novant Health and Wells Fargo.