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The Cumberland County Board of Commissioners voted 4-2 Monday at its regular meeting to approve an ordinance that gives the county the authority to remove encampments from county property. The new ordinance also prohibits sleeping in parked vehicles on county property, according to the text of the ordinance.

Encampments are places where a group of individuals experiencing homelessness resides that is not intended for long-term, continuous occupancy, according to the National League of Cities.

Commissioners Jeannette Council, Michael Boose, Jimmy Keefe and Vice Chairman Glenn Adams voted for the ordinance. Chairwoman Toni Stewart and Commissioner Veronica Jones voted against. Commissioner Marshall Faircloth was not at Monday’s meeting.

The new ordinance gives Cumberland County Sheriff Ennis Wright the authority 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, with the presence of a sheriff’s deputy, within the time directed.

The board also amended, by 4-2 vote, an existing ordinance related to parking on county property. The amendment prohibits people from parking vehicles on county property that do not have a currently registered license plate on the vehicle.

According to the text of both the new ordinance and the amended ordinance, the board intends enforcement to begin immediately.

Cumberland’s new ordinance follows 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 prior to the meeting, 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.

Enforcement of the ordinance

Fayetteville officials began issuing citations in November to unhoused people who were camping on city property and rights of way and public lands usually used for roadways and utilities. It was an enforcement of the ordinance that the City Council passed earlier in the year.

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.

The county’s ordinance works differently. Moorefield said during Monday’s meeting that the Sheriff’s Office would give anyone who violates the ordinance a notice of trespassing, which is not a criminal offense, he said.

“The sheriff has the authority to enforce this ordinance by giving anyone camping on county property a notice of trespass and give them an appropriate amount of time, for the circumstances, to clear their belongings or possessions,” Moorefield said.

People who have already been given a notice of trespass, however, will be subject to being charged with trespassing if they come onto the same county property again, according to the text of ordinance.

The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond when asked what laws deputies would charge repeat violators under.

North Carolina law indicates that people charged with trespassing can be fined a minimum of $1,000 for each violation, depending on the severity of the charge. 

Stewart asked Moorefield at Monday’s meeting what constitutes an appropriate amount of time for people to remove their belongings.

“The order just says appropriate to the circumstances,” Moorefield said. “It’s going to be at the discretion of the law enforcement officer who’s evaluating the circumstance.”

The Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond when asked if deputies have begun enforcing the ordinances.

Community opposition

Sharman Tober, 73, is a homeless person who lives in Fayetteville. She told Carolina Public Press she prefers the term “homeless” to describe herself. Fayetteville officials cited Tober and her son, Christopher, four times in November for violating the city ordinance. Tober showed the citations to CPP in November after she was cited.

Sharman Tober, 73, right, cuddles her dog while speaking about her experiences with homelessness during an interview at the Red Roof Inn on Nov.21 in Fayetteville. After she and her son, Christopher, received four citations for camping in city limits, they were placed in a hotel for a week. Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits / Carolina Public Press

When she spoke at the board meeting Monday before  the vote, she said the citations were dismissed earlier this month. She also asked the board not to approve the county ordinance.

“They don’t have anything. A lot of them are out there because they have drugs, alcohol abuse, or they have mental problems, or they’re just down on their luck, like me and my son,” Tober said. “Circumstances sometimes can’t be helped.”

Shaun McMillan, co-founder of Fayetteville Police Accountability Community Taskforce, spoke during the public comment period as well. He told the board that he was concerned with potential violence that could result in increased law enforcement interaction with unhoused people. He was also concerned with criminalizing unhoused people.

“Are you willing to unnecessarily put someone in danger of losing their life just because they have the need to sleep in their car?” McMillan told the board. “On its face, the proposal is just inhumane. It suggests that we’d rather lock someone in a cage than assist in finding them sustainable shelter. It suggests that we would choose to make a person who was trying to survive into a criminal rather than giving them the resources they so desperately need.” 

Fayetteville resident Matthew Jones, 30, told the board there’s nowhere for unhoused people to go.

“Can’t be on city property, can’t be on county property. Are y’all inviting them over for a sleepover?” Jones said. “Where are they supposed to stay? It would be different if we had this big ol’ shelter where we could offer them a place to stay, but we don’t. And y’all know that.”

Lack of housing options

According to a study from OrgCode Consulting that the county commissioned last year, Cumberland County has fewer emergency shelter beds available compared with its peer counties.

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 governments should have viable shelter in place before creating an ordinance like the city’s and county’s.

“I do believe that the council people and the board of commissioners at the county level, they all have the best intentions and want the best for the county and the residents,” Quercia said. “Our first impulse is what we think to be the simplest solution to a problem. It actually overlooks that these problems are actually quite nuanced, and you cannot just use a big hammer to deal with them.”

Cumberland County is in the early stages of bringing a new homeless shelter to the area. Cape Fear Valley has expressed its intent to partner with the county on the endeavor, CityView reported in March.

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.

But shelters like this should already be in place before an ordinance like Cumberland’s goes into effect, Quercia said. Other counties and cities with similar ordinances have more of a shelter infrastructure in place, he said.

“You don’t move people out before the alternative is in place,” Quercia said.

Cumberland County public information director Brian Haney emailed a statement from the county to CPP prior to Monday’s meeting, justifying the county’s 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.

Available resources for those unhoused

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.

Ben Sessoms

Ben Sessoms is a former Carolina Public Press reporter. To reach the Carolina Public Press newsroom, email news@carolinapublicpress.org.

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