Another Raleigh homeless camp gets cleared. There’s a better option. | Opinion

On Monday, as the U.S. Supreme Court weighed whether the Oregon city of Grants Pass could fine homeless people for sleeping in public places, John Valdez stood in a Raleigh homeless camp and considered a more immediate question: Where would he sleep on Tuesday?

Valdez, a 63-year-old Army veteran struggling with lung cancer, is one of more than 35 people who are living in tents on a grassy area at the intersection of Highways 70 and 401. Several trees on the property owned by the state Department of Transportation are marked with a notice that says: “This encampment is illegal and must be dismantled by 10 a.m. April 23, 2024.” If not, the notice says, Raleigh police will remove the camp.

“I know we weren’t supposed to be here, but to tell you the truth we had nowhere else to go. Nowhere,” Valdez told me.

Valdez said this camp on the Raleigh-Garner border is one of the best he has known. Stores are nearby and church people and food trucks regularly bring meals and supplies.

But after Tuesday, the encampment is likely to be gone.

“They want the homeless to be out of sight and out of mind,” said Patrick O’Neill, a co-founder of the Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House in Garner, who has helped those living in the camp. “Don’t kick people out of a place where they are not doing any harm.”

Police did not arrive Tuesday morning, but most of the homeless people left for other encampments or wherever they could find shelter.

Raleigh police spokesman Jason Borneo said the department’s ACORNS unit, which consists of social workers and officers, has had four meetings with the camp’s residents but most have declined services. “Enforcement is our last option in this complicated situation,” he said..

Clearing the camp may be the last option for the police and for the Department of Transportation, which recently saw another property it owns on South Saunders Street cleared of a homeless camp. But federal, state and local governments need to focus the first option – get homeless people into long-term housing.

Kathy Johnson, executive director of Oak City Cares, a public-private partnership that connects homeless people with services, said homelessness is a growing problem that won’t be solved by clearing camps.

“We have to really come up with innovative solutions because moving people around is just that – it’s moving people around. It’s not accomplishing the goal of getting people housed,” she said.

One reason homelessness doesn’t generate more innovative solutions is that the causes of the problem are widely misunderstood. Homelessness is often attributed to drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness, but Johnson said those conditions are secondary to the main cause: Housing has become unaffordable to more people. Many of the homeless are working, she said, but it’s not enough.

Johnson said that her organization, which provide showers and laundry services, but not shelter, has seen a sharp rise in people needing help. The year Oak City Cares opened in 2019, it served 746 people. This year, it’s on track to serve over 6,000, with the biggest increases coming in the last two years.

“I think we’re in a kind of perfect storm right now,” she said. “We have a huge deficit in affordable housing and you combine that with inflationary costs and people who might have been able to make it before just can’t make ends meet anymore.”

Creating more affordable housing has been a top issue for Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, but she said the state needs to provide more funding for housing the homeless and federal housing policy should be adjusted to accelerate the construction of affordable housing. “We need change and a new perspective on the state and federal level,” she said.

Clearing camps and keeping homeless people from setting up tents on sidewalks and in parks is an understandable government response. Homeless camps can be unsanitary and unsafe, and public spaces shouldn’t become the domain of squatters. But punishing the homeless with fines and pushing them out of sight is not effective or humane.

“We’re not bad people because we’re homeless,” Valdez said. “It’s just somewhere something got turned around.”

There is enough wealth in this nation, state and region to ensure that all people have a safe and lasting place to live. The question is: Is there enough will?

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-404-7583, or nbarnett@