Charlotte residents, visitors will again face criminal penalties for these 6 acts

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The Charlotte City Council voted Monday to re-criminalize multiple city ordinances after months of debate and vocal opposition about the potential impacts on people experiencing homelessness.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police will now in the coming weeks have the authority to issue criminal citations to or arrest people violating ordinances on public masturbation; beer and wine consumption, possession of open containers and disposal of containers; trespassing in a motor vehicle; public urination and defecation; behavior in public parks; and soliciting from street or median strip, which could include panhandling.

The measure passed by a vote of 7-3, with council members Tiawana Brown, Renee Johnson and Lawana Mayfield voting against it. Council member Victoria Watlington, whose safety committee has led much of the discussion of the ordinances, was absent from the meeting.

Council members have been discussing whether to re-criminalize the ordinances for months, since uptown residents came forward with health and safety concerns.

A state law decriminalized the city ordinances in 2021, which meant officers’ only options when facing people violating the ordinances were to ask for compliance, give a verbal warning or issue a written civil citation. The law allows municipalities to reinstate criminal penalties for some local laws if they vote to do so. The City Council did so previously on seven other local laws in 2022.

The city has highlighted its efforts to provide an “holistic” approach, including working to expand funding for street outreach and affordable housing as well as more public restrooms, throughout the process. But that hasn’t stopped groups such as Roof Above, the ACLU of North Carolina and Action NC from raising concerns.

Monday’s vote came after council members heard from more than 30 residents on the ordinances, the majority of whom opposed re-criminalizing the ordinances.

Council member Tariq Bokhari initially introduced a motion to re-criminalize all eight of the ordinances originally recommended by CMPD. That was followed by the substitute motion that ultimately passed, which omitted ordinances on unauthorized people in parking lots and loitering for the purpose of engaging in drug-related activity. City attorneys said last week there were Constitutional concerns with those two ordinances.

The substitute motion, introduced by council member Dimple Ajmera, also called for the re-criminalized ordinances to not take effect until March 1 to allow the community to prepare for the change. A visibly emotional Ajmera said Monday’s discussion brought back memories of when her family lived in a motel “because we didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

“This has been a very difficult decision. This just has been a difficult conversation all along,” she said.

Johnson introduced an amendment to Ajmera’s motion that would have left the ordinances on public masturbation and trespassing on motor vehicles on the table, but it was voted down. Johnson said her amendment would have called for the council to revisit the other ordinances in six months, after other efforts and services could be implemented.

The District 4 representative said she’s concerned that re-criminalization will lead to more criminal records for people experiencing homelessness, making it harder for them to get housing.

“I know that a criminal record is a barrier to housing. I don’t understand how we can vote for this. This exacerbates the problem,” she said.

Brown, who is formerly incarcerated and now runs a nonprofit focused on reentry, cited her personal experiences with housing when explaining her opposition.

“When you think about being homeless, I can speak on it because I’ve been there …When you think about what it’s like to be in these people’s shoes, they’re humans. We need to learn how to restore humanity, and that’s something that we’re missing,” she said.

City Council member Malcolm Graham, whose District 2 includes parts of uptown, said while he’s in agreement with “98%” of what those who spoke Monday said, he ultimately supported the motion due to public safety.

“We all deserve to live in an environment that is safe, that is clean, that we know our neighbors, that we have the ability to walk our dogs or walk our children throughout the community and feel safe,” he said. “... For me this is not about either/or, either we put the ordinances in place or we provide wraparound services.”

Council member Ed Driggs said he believes the move criminalizes behaviors rather than homelessness.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that this topic has become a flashpoint that has created this sort of sense of adversity among us here. We are all on the same team,” he said. “... The fact is there are a lot of people who are homeless who are not in any way responsible for this. And there are people who aren’t homeless who are.”

Mayor Pro Tem Dante Anderson, whose District 1 also includes parts of uptown, said her vote for the ordinances doesn’t mean she doesn’t empathize with those who opposed the idea, noting that she experienced housing insecurity as a young person.

“We have to continue to move forward with that continuum of care while also holding individuals accountable,” she said.

Some who opposed the re-criminalization, who’d held signs saying “Ordinances are not the solution,” shouted “shame” at council members who voted in favor of the changes as they left council chambers after the vote.

Residents call for compassion, action

Many of the speakers who opposed the ordinances were clergy members, including the Rev. Kate Murphy of Grove Presbyterian Church.

She recalled a situation where a woman experiencing homelessness came into her church during a service asking for a place to rest. The church let the woman use a room in their facility, Murphy said, but couldn’t let her stay after church activities concluded because of fire regulations.

“I am glad that people are upset. I am glad that there is a sense of urgency about the fact that people have no place to live in our community. The problem isn’t that people have to see how hard it is to be unhoused, the problem is that people are unhoused. It should not be illegal to rest in our community. It should not be illegal to have a digestive system and a body in our community,” she said.

James Lee, who shared that he previously experienced homelessness, recalled his own struggles finding a place to use the restroom when he was experiencing homelessness.

“There’s a lot of people just outside this door. They need us to get this right,” he said.

Some uptown residents said while they support help for people experiencing homelessness, they also have concerns about their own health and safety and that of their families.

Kristin Smith, who said she’s lived in Fourth Ward for almost 24 years, said that she knew her home was near a park where people experiencing homelessness go when she moved in, and was OK with that. But she’s now concerned about a rise in “frequent drinking and drug use in the park.”

Smith said her dog became ill after eating human feces and that she sees people gathering in the park to “drink for hours.” Many of those people aren’t homeless, she added.

“Although I am passionately committed to living in uptown Charlotte. I’m very worried that we’re becoming known as an unsafe unclean place to live,” she said. “We need to have the tools to keep our beautiful uptown a desirable place to live and work.”