Rising homeless population leaves downtown business owners overwhelmed

Morganton is growing, and that growth has not been without pain.

In September, officials with the Morganton Department of Public Safety received 122 calls for trespassing—they often get calls about homeless people taking other people’s property. That’s more than double the number of trespassing calls since September 2021, when police responded to just 50 trespassing calls.

There was also an increase in calls from suspicious persons in September, although not as severe as calls from trespassing. In September 2021, MDPS officers answered 126 calls from suspicious individuals. In September, they received 150 calls from suspicious people, a 19 percent increase from the previous year.

It wasn’t just September that MDPS received an increase in the number of calls that could be related to homelessness.

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From January to September, the number of suspicious person calls and trespassing calls received by MDPS officers increased each month in 2022 compared to the same period in 2021. So far, officers have responded to more calls about trespassing and trespassing calls in 2022. There are more suspicious people than in all of 2021.

While all of these calls may not be related to Morganton’s homeless population, data provided by MDPS Lt. Tim Corriveau shows the number of contacts MDPS has with homeless individuals. He combed through the department’s September statistics and found that police received 287 homeless-related calls.

Corriveau data shows that during those calls, police made 382 direct contacts with a homeless person.

Many in the community don’t need cold data to tell them that Morgenton’s homeless population is growing.

in October. At four meetings of the Morganton Downtown Development Association, it was clear that downtown business owners had conflicting views on how to deal with the growing number of homeless people.

At that meeting, MDPS chief Jason Whisnant spoke to members about his department’s efforts to help relieve symptoms of the growing homeless population. Whisnant said the two battles of homelessness and addiction often go hand in hand and are not the way police can arrest the city, but because of blatant trespassing and people using drugs in open spaces, they have no other options.

The revolving doors of the criminal justice system send arrestees straight back to the streets — often without getting the treatment they need. Whisnant said he’s been meeting with District Attorney Scott Reilly to look at ways to expand drug courts and help chronic trespassers receive treatment, but the facility is full, with three or four months waiting for treatment to begin.

MDPS is working with owners to prohibit trespassing on their properties, post trespassing signs and clear homeless camps. When people from other areas finally arrive in Morgantown, public safety officials have been authorized to take them to other places in vehicles if the person asks.

However, business owners are still frustrated and looking for more answers.

Lewis Lopez walked briskly across the hallway and tapped the electronic key to open the door to his studio apartment. Lopez, a former homeless man in Boston, is proud of his home and proudly describes the changes he has made since he moved into his apartment. Lopez is clearly proud of his home, and every little gesture he makes about it reflects his taste. “I’ve been in jail. I’ve been…I’ve been in a shelter. I’ve been in recovery,” Lopez said, putting his pride in context. Lopez’s studio apartment is the result of Boston’s strategy for city and regional nonprofits to move people who have been on the street for more than a year into apartments through extensive outreach, then provide medication and living Services such as skills training such as budgeting with the help of case managers. Lopez said homelessness is dangerous, and he finds it easier in prison. In Boston, the number of people sleeping on the streets and living in shelters fell 25 percent in two years as service providers focused on finding permanent homes for those who were on the streets the longest. But when the federal government releases its annual tally later this year, the number of homeless people across the country is expected to rise, the first comprehensive count since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Experts say the crisis is deepening as pandemic relief measures that have left many uninhabitable come to an end.

Several attendees said they believed Morganton’s services to the homeless had reached the point where it hindered rather than helped.

Others argue that there are not enough resources for the homeless.

Some have suggested that services that provide resources for the homeless should move out of the city center. Others said they would like to see a change in the way the resource is provided, hoping it will address littering and loitering.

Some are more extreme, implying that people are simply being moved elsewhere.

While ideas have bounced back and forth, the question remains: What steps can be taken to address homelessness?

Chrissy Murphy is a staff writer and can be reached at cmurphy@morganton.com or 828-432-8941.follow @cmurphyMNH on Twitter.

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