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More Cities Sweeping Homeless Into Less Prominent Areas

In North Carolina, a fight is brewing over the homeless in the capital city of Raleigh. Elected leaders have asked charitable and religious groups to stop their long-standing tradition of feeding the homeless in a downtown park on weekends.

But advocates for the poor say the city is trying to push the homeless out of a neighborhood that business leaders want to spruce up.

'I Will Arrest You'

Almost every day, the Rev. Hugh Hollowell walks through Moore Square, a centuries-old city park in downtown Raleigh.

As he strolls down paths shaded by towering willow oak trees, Holloway greets nearly everyone here by name. Most are homeless. On weekends, when soup kitchens are closed, Holloway and his church workers distribute breakfast to as many as 100 people. But recently a policeman showed up.

"And I said, 'Um, is there a problem?' And he said 'I'm not here to debate with you sir, I'm here to tell you you have to leave. And if you don't leave I will arrest you,' " he says.

Police also banned nearly two dozen other groups who've fed homeless people in the park for years. Candace Jeffries, who relies on those weekend meals to survive, says she knows what's going on.

"I think the reason why they doin' it 'cause they don't want us in the park at all — nobody, like everybody just disappeared," the 21-year-old says.

Local Merchants Hurt

Raleigh isn't the only city seeking to move its homeless population to a less prominent location. In recent years, municipalities from Seattle to Tampa have cracked down on the homeless and groups that help them.

Nationally, there is an increase in cities responding to visible poverty including homelessness by criminalizing it.

Maria Foscarinis heads the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, an organization that seeks to end homelessness. She says many cities want to revitalize downtown areas.

"And they feel like having homeless people, having visibly poor people in those downtown areas detracts from those efforts," she says.

There's been a dramatic increase in the number of homeless and hungry people since the recession, Foscarinis says. And tight state budgets haven't helped solve the problem. That's true in Columbia, S.C., where councilman Cameron Runyan says the number of homeless people in the county has increased by 42 percent in two years. He says their presence on his city's main street hurts local merchants.

"Businesses have a real issue with panhandling, there's an issue with defecating," he says. "We just arrested a woman for using the bathroom on the sidewalk right in the heart of the main street business district area."

As a short-term solution, Runyan and other city leaders in Columbia plan to keep an emergency winter shelter open an extra two months. His strategy includes arresting people who choose not to go there.

'Make Sure Hungry Get Fed'

At a recent public hearing in Raleigh, N.C., advocates for the homeless say that's not a plan they support.

"If you want Moore Square to be free of homeless people, then provide homes for people so they don't have to come to Moore Square," says local activist Patrick O'Neill. "If you don't want us feeding the Moore Square, if that's unsightly and an embarrassment to our city, then do something about it, and make sure the hungry get fed."

The city council has since voted to stop arresting charities that feed the homeless in the park until the matter can be studied further. Meanwhile, two downtown landowners and the Episcopal Diocese have offered their downtown parking lots to groups planning to distribute food to the poor.

Copyright 2013 North Carolina Public Radio

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.