N&R Editorial: Clearing out The Block

Good editorial in today’s News & Record: “Clearing out The Block”:

Greensboro police last week stepped up loitering enforcement and effectively cleared the place known as “The Block.” Just like that.

Through a series of 30-minute patrols, officers shooed away the clusters of mostly men who routinely gather at the notorious hangout near the corner of South Elm and Eugene streets.

People who live in the neighborhood see The Block as a blight and a nuisance, if not a danger.

The owners of a nearby convenience store also blame The Block for panhandling, theft and fights on their premises. “If we only call the police once or twice in a day, that’s a lucky day,” the manager of the FastServ at Elm and Eugene, Sun Post, told the News & Record’s Lorraine Ahearn last week.

Ron Surgeon, who once owned a McDonald’s franchise at the same location, voiced similar concerns eight years ago.

What took the city so long?

The groups who congregate there also tend to be clients of the Greensboro Urban Ministry’s soup kitchen and homeless shelter, as well as the HealthServe clinic. Most of them are addicted, unemployed or otherwise down on their luck.

The Block, of course, is only a symptom of other, tougher problems: homelessness, drug abuse (especially crack cocaine) and the state’s failed mental health reform efforts, to name a few.

The opening of a revamped, county-funded substance-abuse treatment center on Wendover Avenue has been helpful but provides very limited bed space for crack addiction.

A planned new homeless day center at Murrow Boulevard and East Washington Street also should help. The county commissioners’ pledge last week of $275,000 to help pay for the project should now allow construction to move forward.

The Block seems to have been around forever. But it drew renewed attention during a recent debate over the placement of artistic benches along a leg of the Downtown Greenway that passes through the area. Residents of the neighboring Warnersville community complained that the benches only made a bad situation worse, attracting more drug use, vagrancy and “lewd acts.”

As the greenway project expands, says one advocate for the homeless, Michele Forrest, expect more harsh realities to be exposed to plainer view. A homeless camp in the Freeman Mill Road area lies in the path of the next leg of the greenway, she says.

As for the benches, they eventually were removed, though some people disputed allegations that they attracted unsavory behavior.

No one disputes the existence or impact of The Block.

Residents have a right to expect to live free of the daily nuisances, and worse, that came with it. But enforcement won’t succeed in the long run without sustained attention to what drives people to street corners in the first place.

Until that happens, they simply will create a new Block somewhere else.

I usually just quote and link, but this time I’m reprinting the entire editorial. Sometimes older N&R links expire, and this a really good editorial, so I want to make sure I have copy of it.

Be sure to click through to the original, though, for the comments.

NOTE: The editorial says: “The groups who congregate there also tend to be clients of the Greensboro Urban Ministry’s soup kitchen and homeless shelter…” This is incorrect. While the guys on the block do eat at Potter’s House (soup kitchen), none of them stay at Weaver House (homeless shelter). Greensboro Urban Ministry has a strict policy that any shelter guest found hanging out on the block gets kicked out. You won’t find shelter guests on the block.

Allen Johnson: Conflicted about panhandlers

Did you read News & Record editorial page editor Allen Johnson’s Sunday, October 4, 2009 column? Read it online: My conflicted views about panhandlers.

Allen writes in response to the heavily restrictive changes to the city’s panhandling ordinance, which have made it illegal to panhandle almost everywhere downtown, and have limited panhandling throughout the city. Allen talks about why he has mixed feelings about panhandlers.

It’s an open, honest, thought-provoking piece. Worth a read.

P.S. I wonder how my friend Vincent feels about being the poster guy for ending homelessness. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one person. Especially one who was on the street for so many years and is now trying to work through his issues and do his recovery. Keep doing the next right thing, my friend. Ignore the spotlight and look straight at the Son. Amen.

Good-bye to Panhandlers Park & harmless homeless?

From greensboropeerpressure

“The people who rule what happens in Downtown Greensboro have removed the little greenway through the parking lot on South Elm and McGee streets downtown because they claim that nobody used it. People used to use it to eat bag lunches and watch passers-by and enjoy the breeze and the flowers. Neighbors often sat on the benches and had friendly conversations and/or heated discussions.

Of course, not as many people used it after the benches were removed to prevent so-called “homeless people and panhandlers” from sitting on them. Are these people any less because they do not own real estate? Why should it matter who sits on the benches? Most of these people were harmless, non-violent folks….”

» keep reading greensboropeerpressure: GONE FOREVER ???

I haven’t been downtown in a few weeks and didn’t know that Panhandlers Park was gone, but I suspect it has something to do with the renovation of the building next door. I believe that when Council approved the plans, they also approved taking out the grassy median in the parking lot and adding more spaces, because the building renovation would remove spaces.

The line about “harmless, non-violent folks” brought up my favorite weird Panhandlers Park memory. One day I walked over to talk to some homeless people in the park, all of whom I knew. A police officer friend came riding up a minute or so later and talked with us. Suddenly, but casually, one of the homeless guys pulled out a big knife and started throwing it across the sidewalk into the bench. Then he pulled it out and got ready to throw it again. Just tossing the knife, no big deal. There were people walking back and forth to the pay kiosk and to their cars. They hadn’t noticed this yet.

The cop and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows and I backed out of the way. Our friend was very drunk and obviously not too aware of what he was doing. I was very impressed at how calmly and quickly the officer got the knife away from him, all the while maintaining a completely casual tone and not alarming anyone in the parking lot. When I left, the officer was gently leading him out of the parking lot.

Harmless? No. That particular gentleman has a lengthy criminal record, including numerous violent felonies, and is back in prison now (unrelated to the knife toss incident). He can be nice sometimes and dangerous sometimes.  But even for that man, who everybody downtown knows, playing knife toss in a busy public area with a police officer standing next to you is fairly bizarre behavior. In retrospect, it was so surreal that it’s almost funny. It would have been a lot less so if he’d stabbed someone. That’s one of several reasons why I’m OK with the restrictive changes to the panhandling ordinance.