Durham, N.C. — Restaurant managers in downtown Durham are claiming that a group of homeless people are assaulting employees, threatening customers and exposing themselves.
Local business owners say that the behavior in downtown goes beyond standard panhandling tactics.
Several owners brought up their concerns to the Durham City Council during Thursday’s work session.
Elizabeth Rainwater, owner of Bull McCabe’s Irish Pub, said that homeless people were “walking up to customers who were trying to eat, harassing them, taking food off their plate, smoking and ashing on their food.”
They were also “throwing the food and drinks off their tables. Pulling their pants down,” she said Thursday.
City leaders said they are trying to strike a delicate balance of helping those who need it, but ensuring everyone feels safe downtown.
“We’re experiencing things such as assault [and] intimidation,” said city councilmember Leonardo Williams.
Willliams is also a small business owner.
“This is a mental health crisis amongst a small group of folks,” Williams said. “It is a growing group of folks, and what we want to do is get them help.
“The harsh reality is, if we don’t act now, it will increase, because Durham is growing.”
The restaurant owners who spoke Thursday before the city council wanted to make clear that it was not all homeless people who were disrupting their customers. They believe it is a select group of about 10 people.
“We’re allowing people to commit crimes, and that doesn’t seem right,” said Seth Gross, owner of Bull City Burger. “We’re creating an unsafe city.”
The managers claim that District Attorney Satana Deberry will not prosecute these crimes.
In a statement sent to WRAL News, Deberry’s office said that they are aware of these concerns and “does not take them lightly.”
They are working with law enforcement across the city to address these concerns and said it is a “complex situation.”
Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton also emphasized the need to involve multiple groups.
“We’re going to be working with our business owners to come up with ways that run the gamut, not just heavy law enforcement involvement,” Middleton said.
Middleton said they’ll be studying other successful areas.
“We’re going to look at best practices from other business improvement districts around the country,” Middleton said.
WRAL News reached out to the Durham District Attorney’s Office. It’s aware of issues as well.
“”We are working with city and law enforcement partners to best address this complex situation,” the District Attorney’s Office said in a statement. “Due to pending criminal charges in this matter, we will decline to comment further at this time.”
Williams said city leaders are working to address the issue.
“I know government moves slow, but we’re moving really fast on this,” Williams said.
Homelessness has been increasing across Durham as the price of living has increased, according to those who manage homeless shelters.
Every bed is full at the Durham Rescue Mission’s homeless shelter for women and children.
“The current housing crisis is really starting to show its crunch on the Durham Rescue Mission,” said Durham Rescue Mission CEO Rob Tart in July.
Many women staying at the shelter are working on a full-time basis, but still cannot find anywhere they can afford to live.