Homeless…

In the last 18 -24 months, the term “homeless” has become the hottest topic in town. It has been used to define many situations and circumstances that we’ve found ourselves encountering in our small and beloved community. I challenge you to look beyond that term and look deeper into the ‘why’ and ‘what’ behind the encounters and incidents across the past year and a half.

I started my service with the Waynesville Police Department in 2004. After starting my career on the other end of the state, I came home. I came home to the most beautiful place on earth, where I wanted to spend my life, raise my family, and serve my community. My time with WPD started through an initiation to the Frog Level and Commerce Street area. The people there became the majority of my daily encounters, arrests, and conversations. Many suffered from substance abuse and years of self-inflicted damage to their bodies. A few were without homes or bounced around from place to place each night. Domestics, Drunk & Disorderly, Trespassing, Simple Assaults, and similar “quality of life” crimes were routine.

Sometimes they loved us and other times they fought us. It was just the relationship we had with them. Some received more mercy than others. And for some, their leash was short. Some nights when it was cold or raining we would check on them and in some cases make sure they had somewhere to go for the night. The simple fact is that relationships were formed even when putting them in cuffs. More than once, some of us were called to their bedside when they were near their last day. They would request us by name to come to see them one last time. In 2015, I was summoned to an “old friend’s” house as he was finishing up his fight. One short call to the police station asking for Trantham to come to see him. His body had turned on him and he was wasting away. He greeted me with his usual nickname for me and I responded with his. We talked about old times and encounters. We both cried and said goodbye to each other. It remains one of “those moments” in my career that I will always cherish.

Many of our old friends and foes have passed on. Year by year, familiar names were seen in the obituaries as word on the street spread of their lives ending. In many ways, these guys and gals regulated the street. In the hierarchy of things, they kept things square, not always and not exactly what we would want it to be but there was, in some strange way, a sense of accountability. In many cases, we knew who to go talk to if we needed a message to be delivered or behavior addressed that didn’t reach a level of a criminal violation but certainly would end that way if not stopped. It was “community policing” before community policing was cool. It was in those days that compassion and empathy was birthed for those suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues. Something I will never apologize for having.

So what has changed in such a short time…

Fast forward to 2021 and things look much different. A town divided by the demand that you must choose sides. Facebook, news articles, board meetings, open forums, task force meetings, and listening sessions have fueled the flame of division and left a mountain of doubt that a solution could be found. Unfortunately, there are more questions than there are answers. One question that seems to be asked and often becomes the topic of conversation is this…“Do we have a homeless problem or do we have a criminal problem?” A “service-resistant population” who turns to a repeated cycle of criminal behavior?

In 2019, things begin to change in Waynesville. That year, judicial decisions were made to change bond schedules and address the length of pre-trial confinement of those arrested or charged with “low-level” crimes – an attempt to prevent someone from spending more time in pre-trial confinement than they would get for being found guilty for the offense charged. What began as a pilot program became policy and the brush used to paint a small part of the canvas was used to paint the entire picture. The combination of a new generation of offenders together with a different set of rules and accountability quickly changed the dynamics on the street. In 2019 there was an 87% increase in the number of Criminal Summons issued vs. Arrest Warrants. Criminal Summons provides one with an explanation of the charge against you and a court date. You are then free to leave without being seen by a magistrate or having release conditions issued. Summons or “Citation in lieu of arrest” quickly became a talking point heard when the pre-trial policy was discussed. This greatly affected the dynamics of the system, especially when felony crimes were able to be served by a summons instead of a warrant for arrest. In many of these cases, repeat offenders were handed a piece of paper instead of a bond.

This had obvious and expected effects on the street. We watched this play out on Commerce Street and Frog Level, the epicenter for why the Homeless Task Force was formed and why “homelessness” became such a polarizing issue in the election of 2019. A quick look at the calls for service in that area provides a snapshot of how the pretrial release program changed our town. In 2018, the WPD answered 203 calls for service in that area. In 2019, with the pre-trial program in place, the number of calls for service to that area jumped to 651, an over 300% increase in calls for service. Those arrested would, more times than not, return to that area after they were released. No bonds were issued and, in some cases, they walked out of the jail before the officer was able to get in his car and leave. Countless times, the same individual was dealt with again before the shift was over. The difference now from the early days of my career is simple: accountability. Pre-trial confinement isn’t punishment. It is a consequence for actions that serve as temporary relief for the public and victims while due process ensures that the defendant receives fair treatment throughout the process. In some cases pre-trial confinement and jail may save lives. In a recent interview with a suspect of several felony crimes, the individual said something to me that will shock many of you. He said, “I need you to put me in jail so I can get the help I need.” Those are not my words, they are the words of a man, broken from addiction, seeking help.

As of the spring of 2021, it is a safe assessment to conclude that the totality of all of this has harmed the community, business owners, and the victims of crime. I would also propose that it has put more people on the street, while they accumulate more criminal charges and continue a destructive lifestyle. At the end of the equation, it has created more crime and more victims. This is not the first time we have seen this happen. It can be argued that Proposition 47 (2014) in California was a direct cause of the increase of homelessness in that state. Proposition 47 decriminalized crime and provided a lenient pre-trial program. Violent crimes such as Domestic Violence were deemed “non-violent” while those being treated and receiving court mandated rehabilitation were kicked out on the street with no support. An article in the California Globe called it “a dismal failure and an inhumane way to deal with drug addiction and homelessness.” The result is a homeless population that has steadily risen since Prop 47 was implemented. In 2013, the year before Prop 47, the homeless population in LA County was 39,000. As of January 2020, there were over 66,000. That’s more people than live in Haywood County alone.

Taking into consideration the impact of the pre-trial program, the data it has provided, and looking at the day-to-day encounters of law enforcement, I do not believe we need a low-barrier shelter in this town. What we need is to identify those suffering from homelessness on a case-by-case basis. Work to identify their “why”, and help to restore their life, if they are willing to accept the opportunity. What we need to do is identify, arrest, and hold accountable those who victimize our community, break into buildings, sell illegal drugs, cause destruction, and steal the peace of mind from the citizens of this town. What we need is to end the current pre-trial program and work together to revise and reconstruct a policy that is victim-centered.

I don’t think there is a single person who would not desire unity right now. Notice I did not say uniformity. It is an epidemic these days that we call for unity when what we want is uniformity and everyone to agree with us. Unity celebrates the diversity of thought and sits at the table respectfully, without agendas and personal motivations. Unity identifies the problem and sits back while a group of people comes together to find a solution. Unity can only happen when leadership commits to building trust and submits to a vision that benefits the whole and not the part.

Waynesville…

You frustrate me! Almost half my life, I’ve spent watching over you, and my whole life I’ve spent loving you. I believe we can love our neighbor while we relentlessly pursue those who victimize the innocent. I believe we can reach out a hand to the hopeless while we seek out those who abuse the weak. I believe we can serve even those who don’t deserve it while introducing evil to their consequence.

Call me crazy, but I believe it can be done.

8 thoughts on “Homeless…

  1. Is it time to run for office?
    While I was with the Arc we used to bring our guys to the Open door to volunteer. The fights became so bad we had to stop.
    If you see a way to fix it, if God has given you wisdom to change things… hold the light high.

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  2. Whether I agree or disagree is irrelevant. I find your writing to be excellent. In a few short pages the problem was presented, the solution that had been invoked, the results supported by quantitative analysis and your recommendation for a better and more responsible resolution.

    I am also quite pleased that you do not feel threatened or compromised by providing this commentary.

    Continue the rational debate. I have often wondered if God presents these scourges to test our strength and resolve to act as rational caring humans or to see if we revert to self centered, selfish fear mongers. Your presentation gives me hope it is the former.

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  3. Very thoughtful piece by someone who has actually been involved with the issue. Well written, compassionate and fair. You have gotten to the heart of the current state of affairs-that very few are willing to compromise or agree to disagree. The fallout of this divide is the problem only growing larger while we squabble over how to address it. Proud to know and work with you.

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  4. Hey Tyler. Well said and a completely rational view of the problem and the solution from someone who knows it and deals with it on a daily basis. You and all of your brothers and sisters in blue are in our prayers.

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