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Growth in homeless population stumps downtown business owners

Morganton is growing, and that growth isn’t coming without some pains.

In September of this year, officers with the Morganton Department of Public Safety responded to 122 trespassing calls – a call they often receive about people experiencing homelessness encroaching on another’s property. That’s more than double the number of trespassing calls from September 2021, when officers responded to just 50 trespassing calls.

Suspicious person calls also were up in September of this year, though not nearly as dramatically as the trespassing calls. In September 2021, MDPS officers responded to 126 suspicious person calls. This September, they responded to 150 suspicious person calls – about a 19% increase from the year before.

It wasn’t just the month of September that showed an increase in the number of calls MDPS received that may have been related to homelessness.

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From January through September, each month of 2022 has seen an increase in the number of suspicious person calls and trespassing calls MDPS officers have received compared to the same months in 2021. So far, officers already have responded to more calls in 2022 for trespassing and suspicious people than they did in all of 2021.

While all of those calls may not be related to Morganton’s homeless population, MDPS Lt. Tim Corriveau provided data that showed about how many contacts MDPS made with homeless people. He combed through the department’s stats for September and found officers were dispatched to 287 calls related to people experiencing homelessness.

Across those calls, officers made 382 direct contacts with a homeless person, Corriveau’s data showed.

Many in the community didn’t need the cold, hard data to tell them the homeless population in Morganton is growing.

At an Oct. 4 meeting of Morganton’s Downtown Development Association, it was clear downtown business owners have conflicting opinions on how to handle the growing population of people experiencing homelessness.

That meeting saw MDPS Chief Jason Whisnant speak to members about the efforts his department has been making to help alleviate the symptoms of the growing homeless population. Homelessness and addiction, two struggles that often go hand-in-hand, aren’t something officers can arrest the city’s way out of, Whisnant said, but with flagrant trespassing violations and people using drugs in open spaces, they’re left with no other choice.

The revolving door of the criminal justice system turns arrestees right back onto the street – often times without the treatment they need. Whisnant said he’s been in meetings with District Attorney Scott Reilly to look at ways to expand drug court and help get chronic trespassers in treatment, but facilities are full with a three or four month waiting list for treatment to begin.

MDPS is working with property owners to ban trespassers from their properties, get no trespassing signs posted and clear homeless camps. When people from other areas end up in Morganton, Public Safety officers have been authorized to give them rides somewhere else – if the person requests one.

Business owners remain frustrated, though, and in search of more answers.

Lewis Lopez walks briskly across the corridor and taps an electronic key to open the door to his studio apartment. A former homeless resident of Boston, Lopez is proud of his home and proudly describes changes he made since moving into the apartment. Lopez clearly is proud of his home and every little touch he made to it to reflect his taste. “I’ve been in jail. I’ve been… I’ve been in shelters. I’ve been in rehabs,” Lopez says, putting his pride into context. Lopez’s studio apartment is the result of a Boston strategy that has the city and area nonprofits using extensive outreach to get people who’ve been on the streets for more than a year into apartments and then provide services such as drug treatment and life-skills training like budgeting with the help of case managers. Lopez says the homeless life is hazardous, and he found it easier being in prison. In Boston, the number of people sleeping on the streets and in shelters has dropped 25% over two years as service providers focused on finding permanent housing for those who’ve been on the streets the longest. But homelessness is expected to be up nationally when the federal government releases results from an annual count later this year in the first full count conducted since the coronavirus pandemic began. Experts say with the end of pandemic relief measures that kept many people housed, the crisis is deepening.

Several attendees said they felt the services available in Morganton for those experiencing homelessness has gotten to the point that is more a hindrance than a help.

Others felt there aren’t enough resources for people experiencing homelessness.

Some suggested the services that provide resources for people experiencing homelessness should be moved out of downtown. Others said they want to see the method of providing resources change in hopes it will address issues with littering and loitering.

Some were more extreme, suggesting the people just be moved somewhere else.

While ideas have bounced back and forth, the question remains: What steps can be taken to address homelessness?

Chrissy Murphy is a staff writer and can be reached at or at 828-432-8941. Follow @cmurphyMNH on Twitter.

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