For five months, residents of a homeless camp next to N.C. 147 and Chapel Hill Street near downtown Durham have wondered if and when they would be forced to leave their home. In January, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which owns the pavement-surrounded island, put the writing on the wall, posting signs around the camp that read, "State-Owned Property No Trespassing."
Yet despite murmurs that police would remove them or that the trees sheltering their tents would be cut down to encourage their departure, the camp didn't clear out, and the residents remained defiant. This is their home, they've told those who inquired about their situation, and they have nowhere else to go.
But their sense of security, however tenuous, changed with the delivery of a written notice earlier this month from the Durham Police Department, telling them to leave the property or face trespassing charges.
Jonathan Robinson wasn't there when police delivered the papers, but hearing about it was enough to prompt him to finally pack up and leave after four months at the encampment. Like others, he was surprised by the news, because Tent City, as it's sometimes called, has been there so long that footpaths between the tents and the road are worn into the grass. (The camp has had a dozen or more residents, though that number fluctuates. It's not clear how long the camp has been in existence.)
Robinson, forty-six, says he moved in after he was "put out" of a local shelter. He searched for another place to live, but he couldn't afford rent on what he makes asking for money on downtown streets.
"I've looked, but all I make is what I make in a day, and that's hardly enough to eat," he says. Besides, he takes comfort in being surrounded by others at the encampment.
He left Friday, the last day police told residents they could remain on the property, and spent the night in a parking deck.
Other camp residents have similarly scattered, at least temporarily, either because of the notice to vacate or the attention from news crews. By Monday morning, six tents were still in place, but few people milled about.
Neither the DOT nor the city seems eager to remove those who remain. Instead, the city has been working with nonprofits and the county Department of Social Services to try to find housing for residents of the camp. At least four former residents have been housed or connected to other services, but others have declined assistance.
The situation prompted members of the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit, which last week called on the Durham City Council to create affordable housing just across the street from the camp at the current DPD headquarters, to ask city, county, and DOT officials to delay the eviction until July 15, while nonprofits continue to try to find the residents housing. The coalition also asked that additional funding be allotted to Open Table Ministry, Housing for New Hope, or other organizations to help the residents.
City manager Tom Bonfield told the INDY on Monday that he had emailed the DOT asking if the agency plans to rescind a trespassing notice it filed in May, which would allow residents to stay until July 15 or some other date.
"Until I hear back from them, we will continue to work with the service providers to try and assist those who are camping there," Bonfield says.
In an email, DOT spokesman Steve Abbott says the trespassing notice the agency filed with Durham police expires after ninety days, and it's up to law enforcement to enforce it: "If the city chooses to hold off, there are more than two months of time for local groups to continue to try to assist the residents. And if no action is taken by that August deadline and the authorization deadline passes, the city can let us know if we need to file a new request."
In a January letter, the DOT asked the city and county for assistance enforcing the trespassing law after local officials passed on complaints about the camp.
At "some point this spring," Abbott says, the city asked the DOT to fill out the DPD's official trespass form. The agency did so May 18, stating that "no person is authorized to enter or remain on the ... premises, including all property and buildings located thereon, without being in possession of written permission from the owner." On June 1, residents were served a written notice saying they had seven days to leave or face second-degree trespassing charges.
"We made the initial request for action about five months ago, and I am unaware that anyone at NCDOT since then gave the city a specific date or deadline that we wanted action to be taken," Abbott told city council member Jillian Johnson in an email Friday. "My understanding is our only step since then was filling out the form the city told us to [fill out] in May. The decision on when and how to enforce that is up to the city and police."
That decision comes as the city begins an overhaul of its homeless services, trying to streamline intake and resources, and keep people out of the system to begin with through rapid rehousing and eviction diversion.
At the annual point-in-time count in 2017, 354 individuals in Durham were homeless on a single evening. Of them, sixty were completely unsheltered—double the number from the 2016 count and the highest total since 2012.
Tent City residents have made four demands of the city: that they not be evicted until they find free, permanent housing; that the trees at the camp not be cut down ("The trees keep us shaded from the elements, especially the hot sun during the summer"); that the city provide trash bins and pick-up; and that the current police headquarters be transitioned into affordable housing, including free accommodations for the camp's residents.
After weighing whether the city could make more of a dent in Durham's affordable housing crisis by creating it on the DPD's prime four-acre site or selling the land and using the proceeds for housing elsewhere, the city council decided last Thursday to ask developers for ideas. The council laid out a list of priorities—the top two: creating affordable housing and maximizing the sale price—but construction could be far off as the city awaits proposals.
On Friday, groups including Defend Durham (which formed after the toppling of a Confederate monument downtown last year) and the Workers World Party helped residents clear the site of trash and recyclables and held a sparsely attended roadside protest and press conference.
"I guess the phrase I want to use right now is, I may be homeless, but I'm not hopeless," said Edward Prettyman, the self-described "senior man in the camp." "We don't really have any other place to go that's comfortable and safe. With that being said, I'm not trying to leave my spot. Everybody in this general area knows us. They talk to us. They help us, and I'm not trying to go anywhere else. There's really no reason for them to be pushing us out here. The few of us that are still here, we like it, you know?"