Narrow bridges

Homeless camps under bridges in sight | News

Homeless settlements under bridges are on the rise in Haywood County, but ending the bridge occupations is not an easy proposition.

Squatters built makeshift neighborhoods under the nooks and crannies of many bridges across the county. The Russ Avenue bridge in Waynesville is the most visible, but more than a dozen bridges used for homeless settlements from Bethel to Rabbit Skin have been identified – and local leaders have taken notice of them in recent times.

“The accumulation of debris under the bridge served as a kind of metaphor for government inaction. Out of sight, out of mind. Sweep it under the rug, forget it, ”Erich Overhultz said, speaking to Waynesville city council last month. “Please take initiatives. Set a date, and let’s clean this up.

But fleeing the homeless and cleaning up the mess left behind has become a bit of a quagmire.

“It’s a little more complicated than being spineless,” said Anthony Sutton, Waynesville city councilor.

Bridges are owned by NC DOT, while property under some bridges is owned by the railroad – so it is technically not the jurisdiction of the city. Overhultz said the apologies are dwindling though.

“It’s kind of like a rugby scrum, and while everyone is pointing fingers, the garbage is piling up,” he said.

Running interference

The issue caught the attention of North Carolina Rep. Mark Pless, R-Bethel, who started shaking trees a few weeks ago to remove the DOT clearance hurdle. Pless compiled a list of more than a dozen bridges across the county that housed homeless settlements and asked DOT to grant permission for local law enforcement to enforce trespassing laws. .

This authorization has been granted.

“Any of our local, state or federal law enforcement agencies may, at their discretion, enter the NCDOT Division 14 right-of-way to enforce laws they believe best serve security.” and public welfare, ”wrote Wesley Grindstaff, DOT maintenance engineer. an email to Pless. “The ministry does not prevent any law enforcement agency from performing such duties as it deems necessary under our easements. “

Pless said the memo should now give Waynesville Police and Sheriff’s Deputies the authority they need.

“They can ask their officers to go and say ‘You all have to get out.’ The point is to let them know that you can no longer stay under these bridges, go find another place to live, ”Pless said. “It is not that anyone wants these people to suffer, but it is not their property, and it is detrimental to the greater public welfare.”

It’s not just the bulky garbage that is piling up under decks – soggy sleeping bags, rotten food, broken bottles, needles and all kinds of garbage – but also the public safety issue that plagues Pless.

A fire broke out at the homeless camp under the Russ Avenue Bridge last January and burned with such intensity that it melted AT & T’s fiber lines, causing more than $ 400,000 in damage and a widespread Internet blackout across the county. The blaze was particularly dangerous for firefighters, who crawled through narrow, smoking crevices under the bridge deck in the middle of the night to make sure no one was trapped.

“It can turn deadly for public safety people,” said Waynesville Police Chief David Adams.

Although the bridge itself was not damaged this time, it is a risk.

“We can’t afford the price and the damage that can come with it,” Pless said. “They destroy what belongs to the people. “

Lack of teeth

For the record, the Waynesville police officers regularly search under bridges, but finding the occupants is another story.

“They crawl under these bridges almost every night,” Rob Hites, Town Manager of Waynesville, said of the town police. “There is clear evidence that people are occupying it, but most of the time we can’t find anyone.”

The other problem is that of the application. Trespassing is a misdemeanor, so offenders may be issued a ticket and a court date. But there’s a good chance they won’t appear on the court date.

The first approach will therefore be to simply ask them to leave.

“We’re going to see what we can do to encourage people to move forward without criminal action,” Waynesville Police Chief David Adams said. “The goal is not to put them in jail. The goal is to make sure the area is clean and safe.

The prison is severely overcrowded as it is, Adams noted. However, repeat offenders will eventually receive written tickets, and if they don’t show up on their court date or continue to trespass, they could be jailed at that time, he said.

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher agreed with the advice.

“Hopefully we can get compliance just by asking not to be under bridge,” Christopher said. “If that doesn’t work, we would probably proceed with an arrest because it is a criminal offense.”

Homeless rights

While the cat-and-mouse game of writing entrance tickets for the homeless is problematic in itself, the other problem is what to do with the accumulated goods stored under bridges.

“There is a simplistic idea that the city can get a backhoe, pull a truck and dig it up, but we asked a lawyer to warn us about the private rights of the homeless,” Hites said.

In May, a group of private citizens decided to clean up the homeless camp under the Russ Avenue Bridge.

The backlash followed the destruction of personal belongings without giving the homeless the opportunity to take out their valuables first, including keys and a Social Security card that were allegedly lost during the cleanup. The city was then threatened for violating the constitutional rights of the squatters.

“We’ve been told you can’t just come in and clean it. You have to move people and give them 48 hours to move their belongings, ”Hites said.

It is not clear who is responsible for removing the garbage and debris. Bridges are owned by DOT, but DOT plays a passive role in the problem.

“If local authorities determine that conditions at a site present a clear risk to the public, local law enforcement takes the initiative to ask those there to leave. It is only after the area has been cleared that our teams begin to collect the waste and restore the area, ”said Wanda Austin, regional division chief for DOT.

However, since the bridges appear to house a revolving door of squatters, it can be difficult to determine when they are gone.

In addition, the cleaning of the bridges that cross the railway tracks will require the cooperation of the railway. While the DOT may own the bridge, the land below is owned by the railroad. Sounds like another excuse for Overhultz.

“Despite the jurisdictional limits, there should be a common sense agreement because it does not serve anyone’s interests,” he said.

Meanwhile, Waynesville has exclusive jurisdiction over certain bridges over smaller roads that do not belong to DOT, but to the city itself. One of these bridges is on Boyd Avenue, a few blocks from Waynesville Middle School. Clear signs of occupation, including tents and fires, were found under the bridge.

“You don’t want those people who are close to college,” Pless said. “A lot of them have substance abuse issues, mental health issues, a criminal record. And you park them next to 800 students coming and going.

Where should they go?

Pless hopes the Sheriff’s Office and the Waynesville Police Department start to be more aggressive.

“We need them to go away,” he said of the homeless settlements.

But it has to be a cooperative effort across the county or they’ll just show up elsewhere, he said. Pless is lobbying the DOT to display all Haywood County bridges without trespassing signs.

“You can’t chase them away from less than one because they’re just going to show up to another,” Pless said.

But where exactly are the homeless supposed to go if not under the bridges?

“It comes back to the question that we have touched on a number of times, what are we going to do with it?” said Christophe. “We understand that a bridge cannot be compromised, especially at this time of year. Fires and other combustible products could be very dangerous not only for those who live under the bridge, but also for those who cross the bridge. . “

He suggested the possibility of working with the Haywood Pathways Center and other strategic partners to see if it was possible to find a safe place where homeless people could stay and not break any laws or ordinances.

There are plenty of nonprofits and welfare organizations ready to help anyone who wants to change their life, Pless said. The ones that remain are the tough cases where people have no interest in improving their lives, he said.

“The big problem seems to be that they’re not ready to do what it takes to get better, and I don’t think you can motivate them,” Pless said.

Pless said a number of them were not from Haywood County, but were from elsewhere. The solution? Buy them a bus ticket out of town, Pless suggested.

“It’s too cold in here anyway,” Pless said.