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The Cumberland Board of Commissioners is scheduled to vote Monday on an ordinance that would give the county the authority to remove encampments from county property, according to the meeting agenda. The ordinance would also prohibit sleeping in parked vehicles on county property, according to the text of the ordinance.
Encampments, according to the National League of Cities, are places where a group of individuals experiencing homelessness resides that is not intended for long-term, continuous occupancy.
The board will meet Monday at 6:45 p.m. in Room 118 at the Cumberland County Courthouse. It will be the final board meeting of 2022.
Monday’s vote will be the second reading of the ordinance. The board passed the first reading 5-2 in November, but since the vote was not unanimous, a second reading was required, Carolina Public Press reported.
If a majority of the board passes the second reading, Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright would have the authority, effectively immediately, to:
- Enforce the ordinance by giving notice of trespass to the person or persons camping or establishing a camp on county property.
- Direct those persons to remove all personal property at the campsite.
- Request the county manager to dispatch appropriate county staff to remove any personal property not removed from the site within the time directed.
Cumberland’s ordinance, if the board passes it, would follow a similar ordinance passed by the Fayetteville City Council in August that prohibits camping on city-owned property. The city and county have their own governments that own their own distinct parcels of land.
In a memo to the board, County Attorney Rick Moorefield said Fayetteville’s ordinance forced unhoused people camping on city property to begin camping on county property. This resulted in sanitation issues at the Cumberland County Public Library in downtown Fayetteville. The county, not the city, has jurisdiction over the library property.
Cumberland County public information director Brian Haney emailed a statement from the county to CPP, justifying the county’s proposed ordinance.
“Addressing the issue of homelessness is a top priority of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners and county staff, and we are continuing to move that priority forward. At the same time, we also have a responsibility to listen to the public health and safety concerns raised by those who use the Headquarters Library and to our county employees who staff the facility,” the statement read.
To make public comments before the board at Monday’s meeting, residents must sign up through the county website, by phone at 910-678-7771, by fax at 910-678-7770 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The sign-up sheet will also be available 15 minutes before the start of the meeting.
City responds to criticism of ordinance
City of Fayetteville officials began issuing citations to unhoused people who were camping on city property and rights of way, public lands usually used for roadways and utilities, in November. It was enforcement of the ordinance that the City Council passed earlier in the year.
Sharman Tober, 73, is a homeless person who lives in Fayetteville. She told CPP she prefers the term “homeless” to describe herself. Tober spoke at a City Council meeting in November, criticizing the city’s ordinance. The city issued Tober and her son Christopher four citations for camping on city property in November. Tober showed the citations to CPP.
Those cited for violating the city’s ordinance can be fined up to $500 for each time they violate the order. Those cited can also be imprisoned, according to the text of the ordinance.
“This is the way the city treats me?” Tober said before the council. “Are you helping? No, you’re hindering.”
Jodi Phelps, chief of staff for City Manager Doug Hewett’s office, emailed a city statement to CPP in response to community criticism of the ordinance.
“The camping ordinance was designed to maintain streets, parks and other public areas within the city in a clean, sanitary and accessible condition and to protect the health, safety and public welfare of the community. An encampment may be determined to be high-risk and unsafe based on a number of factors related to health and safety,” the statement read.
City staff also told unhoused people camping on city property about the ordinance before enforcement began and provided them with information about resources available to them, the city statement read.
Tober, however, said that the resource she needs is a place to live. She said at the November City Council meeting that nothing is available.
“I’ve been trying for years to get a place — years — and it’s not working,” Tober said.
‘Working backwards instead of moving forward’
Tober isn’t alone in her struggles to find affordable housing. It’s common in Cumberland County for those with extremely low income, according to a study from OrgCode Consulting the county released in August 2021. The county commissioned OrgCode to conduct the study.
As of 2021, the study found that there were 9,445 renter households in the county with extremely low income. That was $17,900 for a family of four at the time, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The OrgCode study also found that there were 5,141 affordable units available for those at that income, a shortage of 4,304. HUD defines housing as affordable if the unit costs 30% or less of the household’s annual income.
Lindsey Wofford is head of Seth’s Wish, a charity organization that describes itself as helping the homeless and hungry in Fayetteville. She said the lack of affordable housing in the area has created a situation where unhoused have few options for shelter. For her, forcibly removing encampments is not helping.
“If we don’t have some place for them to go, it actually is like working backwards instead of moving forward,” Wofford said.
Wofford said she understands that camping in public places is not viable. “We just think that the way they are trying to solve the problem is not helpful,” she said
The OrgCode study also found that the area is short on emergency shelter beds.
At the time of the study, there were a total of 38 emergency shelter beds in Cumberland County. That was fewer than Buncombe and Wake counties’ numbers at 259 and 509, respectively.
When accounting for the population in each county, there were 0.113 beds per 1,000 people in Cumberland. For Buncombe and Wake, the per 1,000 rate for emergency beds was 0.9916 and 0.454, respectively.
Robert Quercia, an academic at UNC Chapel Hill who studies low-income housing, said it is the responsibility of institutions like governments to provide housing for those who need it.
“Homelessness is not a reflection of an individual’s setback, or problem, but rather a symptom of an institutional failure,” Quercia said.
Governments need to have viable options in place before removing camps, Quercia said. “You don’t move people out before the alternative is in place,” he said.
On Monday, President Joe Biden’s administration announced a federal plan to reduce homelessness nationwide by 25% by 2025.
The plan was based on input, according to the administration, from more than 500 who have experienced homelessness as well as community leaders from more than 600 communities, tribes and territories.
Those that participated in those conversations, according to the administration, said that the federal government needs to:
- Urgently address the basic needs of people in crisis.
- Expand the supply of and access to affordable housing and high-quality support.
- Build better systems to prevent people from losing their home in the first place.
- Collaborate across sectors, systems and jurisdictions.
- Rely on data and evidence that show what works.
- Include people who have experienced homelessness in the policymaking process to dismantle systems that create disparities.
Other options in progress
Fayetteville is in the process of creating a homeless day resource center “to support and centralize resources for citizens experiencing homelessness,” according to the city’s website.
Construction is estimated to be completed in the spring, according to a presentation to the City Council at a meeting in early March.
Cape Fear Valley Health and Cumberland County are in the early stages of bringing a new homeless shelter to the area.
At a November Board of Commissioners meeting, former County Manager Amy Cannon said the county could finish construction of the shelter in two years, if fast-tracked by the Board. Cannon retired from the county manager position earlier in December.
Those who are unhoused and seeking help and resources in Cumberland County can visit the Fayetteville/Cumberland County Continuum of Care’s website here.
The city of Fayetteville outlines local resources available for unhoused populations on its website. References to resources include emergency shelter, clothing, food, hygiene needs, mental health services, transportation needs and veteran services.
Correction: A previous version of this story reported an incorrect number of emergency shelter beds per 1,000 people in Cumberland, Buncombe and Wake counties. The original story incorrectly reported the total number of beds.