Content warning: This article contains mention of self-harm.
After 18 years of experiencing homelessness, 33-year-old Chapel Hill resident Bobby Woodlief has endured copious difficulties.
Now, he spends much of his time on Franklin Street, and, as a result of his living situation, he has had mixed interactions with the Chapel Hill Police Department and the Crisis Unit.
Woodlief said that in a past confrontation with police, officers thought he was suicidal and took him to the hospital after resisting arrest for aggressive panhandling. He said these sorts of interactions with police make him feel harassed.
However, Woodlief said he gives “two thumbs-up” to the Crisis Unit, which has provided him with clothes and a sleeping bag.
But experiences like Woodlief's are not uncommon.
According to the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, many unhoused people have encounters with police and are "involved in the criminal justice system as a direct result of not having a place to call home."
David Mitchell, who is 37 years old, has been unhoused in Chapel Hill for over two years. He said he had a hostile interaction with CHPD earlier this year.
Mitchell said his car was stolen but was recovered, so he left a voicemail for the Carrboro Police Department to inform them that he had the car back.
He said a lack of communication between Chapel Hill and Carrboro police led to a confrontation with CHPD. He said Chapel Hill police officers woke him up with a gun to his head while he was sleeping in his car around 3 a.m. in front of the Target on Franklin Street.
Mitchell said Chapel Hill police asked him to get out of his car to check if the vehicle was his and they later found that it was.
“I mean, if they would’ve talked to the Carrboro Police Department, they would have known that," Mitchell said. "If they would have listened to me when they first said, ‘Let me see your hands,’ they would have known that — instead of going through the process and continuing to search me and everything like that.”
Alex Carrasquillo, the Town of Chapel Hill's community safety public information officer, said it is protocol to draw a weapon when interacting with a stolen vehicle and denied that officers pointed the gun at Mitchell’s head.
In an email statement, Carrboro Chief of Police Chris Atack confirmed that Mitchell reported his car stolen in August and the Carrboro Police Department entered the vehicle into the National Crime Information Center as stolen. According to Atack, Carrboro police’s last contact with Mitchell was in September.
"We were notified on January 12, 2023, by CHPD that their officers had located the vehicle in Chapel Hill and the vehicle was removed from NCIC," Atack said in the email.
Woodlief expressed concern about how unhoused people are treated by the police.
“They think we’re scum, but we were people too at once upon a time,” Woodlief said.
Town and County outreach
Crisis Unit Supervisor Sarah Belcher said the unit has a strong relationship with unhoused people in Chapel Hill. The Crisis Unit engages with and seeks to form connections with them, she said.
“The relationship building is really the foundation of how we do our work, how we engage with people and help them get connected to support and resources,” Belcher said.
Belcher said the CHPD provides resources like blankets, toiletries and snacks to make sure the urgent needs of unhoused individuals are met.
Groups like the Orange County Street Outreach, Harm Reduction and Deflection program work to connect people with sustainable, long-term solutions to housing insecurity.
SOHRAD’s mission is to connect those experiencing homelessness in Orange County with housing and other services. The program is co-managed by the county's Criminal Justice Resource Department and the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness.
Caitlin Fenhagen, criminal justice resource director, said SOHRAD gives law enforcement a better alternative to charging and citing unhoused individuals by extending a "warm handoff" to supportive services.
She said these efforts aim to ensure that people are not charged or cited for issues that relate to their homelessness as opposed to true criminal behavior.
“The better option for the community and from the general safety standpoint is to connect that person to services — and not just having a punitive mindset on it,” Atack said.
Kohl George, who is 53 years old, said he has been living on the streets for most of his 12 years in Chapel Hill.
He said SOHRAD had previously reached out to him and noted his contact information to follow up with more support.
However, he said he was frustrated because of SOHRAD's methods of communication. He recounted how a representative he spoke with did not directly follow up with him about his needs.
“It’s like the services make you feel like you’re left in the dark for no reason,” George said. “Like 'Why is this happening?' And when you question it, then there’s no answer.”
Reframing law enforcement approach
Rachel Waltz, the manager of OCPEH, said unhoused people's interactions with the criminal justice system can make it more difficult for them to find employment and housing.
She said ordinances against loitering and panhandling disproportionately impact people experiencing homelessness across the nation.
But Waltz said those ordinances are not aggressively enforced in Orange County, allowing people who are experiencing homelessness to access resources they need without additional burden.
Atack said Carrboro Police rarely enforce these laws with citations and arrests.
Community members and businesses can call the police out of concern for someone else, or unhoused people themselves can reach out by calling or going to the police department.
“It demonstrates that the relationship we have is there, it’s not confrontational or adversarial,” Atack said. “In a lot of ways, it's cooperative.”
George said police are understanding of his situation and know he's not a "troublemaker."
“I know the police are out there trying to protect the people and do their job,” George said. “And I get that. And there's people there that feel like the police are crooked, the police aren't good people.”
@torinewbyy | @msingleton42 | @GowriAbhinanda
@DTHCityState | firstname.lastname@example.org | email@example.com
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.