Charlotte councilman suggests misdemeanor for donating directly to homeless

CHARLOTTE — A Charlotte city councilman floated an unusual and controversial idea on how to handle people donating directly to the city’s homeless.

The issue of homelessness came up during Monday night’s City Council meeting when Charlotte Center City Partners was giving a presentation on the current state of uptown and uptown’s reemergence from the pandemic.

Center City Partners is helping produce a strategic plan to address homelessness in uptown.

Councilmember Tariq Bokhari suggested “tough love” when it comes to dealing with handouts for the homeless.

“I think we need a heavier dose of tough love amongst this community -- especially amongst those who continually give money, food and clothing directly to these folks instead of giving them to the organizations that are designed to help them with their issues,” Bokhari said. “Is there going to be a strategy that isn’t kid gloves to approach this at some point? Because it is getting worse and worse and worse.”

Bokhari expounded on his thoughts, saying, “As you craft that strategic plan, let’s think out of the box and boldly. We’ve done a lot of things these last several years and while a lot of good individual outcomes have occured, we haven’t made a dent in the broader issue. Thinking outside of the box and saying that people aren’t getting it and they are still bringing food, money and clothes directly to people that are out there right now.”

He suggested a possible misdemeanor charge for people who donate directly to the homeless instead of to a group or nonprofit that works with them.

“They are only making themselves feel good,” Bokhari said. “They are hurting the ultimate folks. Perhaps we explore making that a misdemeanor. We have to do something different or we are never going to get ahead of it.”

The suggestion stands no chance of passing the majority Democratic council, but only drew a rebuke from one council member, Renee Johnson.

“I have one comment I want to address -- possibly implementing a plan where helping homeless individuals could be a misdemeanor,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to leave that hanging for this council. That will the headline tomorrow. That is something I will never support, especially when there are so many systemic barriers for individuals who are homeless. We know that North Carolina Medicaid is not expanded. Many of those individuals are not getting the healthcare they need.”

(WATCH: Donors provide south Charlotte couple who were homeless with life-changing gift)

Does donating directly to the homeless help or hurt them in the long run?

While Bokhari’s idea of a possible misdemeanor charge for people who donate directly to the homeless instead of to a group or nonprofit that works with them has little chance passing, it brings up the question -- does giving directly to the homeless help or hurt them in the long run?

Both Deborah Woolard of Block Love Charlotte and Huntersville Commissioner Stacy Phillips work directly with our neighbors experiencing homeless.

“It’s very complex, and it’s case-by-case,” Woolard said.

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“So there’s not a one size fits all answer, especially for Mecklenburg County,” Phillips said. “So much of homeless services is focused on downtown Charlotte and the thing is there are homeless people through Mecklenburg County, Iredell County, Lincoln County so they can’t access the downtown Charlotte services. So if you see someone in need or someone that needs help, I say do what’s in your heart to do.”

Phillips said it can never hurt to give someone a meal and suggests focusing financial donations on small organizations doing street outreach like Woolard’s Block Love Charlotte.

“The population that we serve is not a population that feels they need to be enabled to remain homeless,” Woolard said. “That population is a population that is seeking housing, that wants assistance and sometimes they either don’t know how to ask or there is an issue of trust with current resources.”

Woolard said in some cases, giving to someone directly can make a difference.

“You never know what that person may need,” Woolard said.

Woolard recommended asking individuals exactly what they need, not assuming, or reaching out to local nonprofits committed to this work.

Still, she acknowledges there can be value in one-on-one interactions.

“Why stop that individual from giving to them because that individual might have a conversation with them that says ‘Hey, I got a job with my job over here that you may be perfect for’ that a nonprofit may not have a connection to,” Woolard said. “So, we can’t miss that opportunity for someone to help lift somebody out of their situation.”

Phillips told Channel 9′s Elsa Gillis the bigger conversation to be had should be focused on affordable housing and addressing keeping those on the cusp of homelessness in housing.

(WATCH: ‘I am really speechless’: Mecklenburg County hosts virtual town hall on homelessness)