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Scott Sexton: Public urination on downtown streets points out an old problem that begs hard choices

I watched a man take a leak the other day. But it’s not as weird as it sounds.

We’d just returned from vacation. Three jellyfish stings notwithstanding — trust me, the delayed itching and angry red welts are far worse than the initial electric shock — it was a big, relaxing time at the beach.

One free evening remained before the cold splash of workaday reality, and so we opted for a Friday night out downtown. Dinner and a movie seemed the exact right capstone to a great week.

The Xcaret Mexican Grill and Cantina on Fourth Street smelled great, so in we went. A table next to a glass wall overlooking an enormous mound of dirt that was once Merschel Plaza provided a perfect window for people watching.

Beers, chips and salsa arrived. And then it happened.

In full view of a crowded restaurant, a 40-something guy wearing acid washed jeans apparently couldn’t hold it anymore. He unleashed on the sidewalk directly below the glass. And everyone in the restaurant, including a District Court judge dining with family, noticed.

“Dinner and show … Nice,” a woman seated at the next table blurted out.

Not wrong

Just the day before, a large headline on a prominent newspaper story alerted folks to another issue that fits hand-in-glove with this one.

“Panhandlers stir complaints. Email calls for city actions, and relocation of transit station”

The gist, in case you missed it, is that panhandlers working the downtown have become overly aggressive and too many in number. One suggestion floated would move the Clark Campbell Transportation Center and a drug treatment center … somewhere else.

“I’ve been shocked by the level of harassment I’ve experienced personally on Fourth Street coming and going from lunch meetings recently,” wrote Bobby Finch, a partner in Triad Commercial Properties, in an email making the rounds among downtown stakeholders.

Those would include elected officials, merchants, business leaders and cops, particularly the understaffed downtown bike patrol charged with policing such issues.

Jason Thiel, the president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, weighed in by saying that this summer, for whatever reason, has seen “a significant increase in aggressive panhandling.”

Finch, Thiel and other stakeholders aren’t wrong. But it’s hardly a new issue — here or anywhere else that’s reaping the benefits of downtown revitalization.

Panhandling, public bladder-control issues, loitering, trespassing, sleeping in parks and other so-called lifestyle crimes have been here forever. And so has the accompanying chorus of concerns.

Another, similar wave of complaints surfaced in 2013 when small business owners in the Trade Street arts district grew frustrated enough to raise their collective voice to ask for help.

“Somebody (defecated) on the patio,” Percy Snow, an owner of the Silver Moon Saloon, said on that June morning.

The then-owners of The Garage, which closed in 2017, had horror stories of their own.

“Everyone is kind of scared to say anything,” said Brian Cole in that same meeting. “Nobody wants to say anything bad about the homeless or the bus station. You get called racist if you do.

“And it’s not a racial thing. It’s an economic thing.”

Fast-forward to the summer of 2019. Six years have passed and the song remains the same.


and around we go

But what does a self-respecting and compassionate community do? It’s not as if local officials — and by extension, downtown boosters, haven’t tried.

Remember the window sign campaign urging people to give to Samaritan’s Inn rather than individual panhandlers? That was in the early 2000s.

How about the grand-opening of the new $28-million Central Library in 2017? Library officials, sensitive to mean-spirited criticisms about it being an expensive day shelter for the homeless, prepped by snagging years earlier a grant to hire an outreach coordinator.

And elected officials have talked about lifestyle crimes for as long as I’ve been paying attention. City Council talked in 2002 about a panhandling ordinance. It enacted one in 2010 requiring beggars to get a license from City Hall. Even though panhandling, in and of itself, isn’t illegal.

Doing so in a “prohibited way” is. That includes being overly aggressive, asking for money while drunk or hitting up people who are dining outdoors, at an ATM or standing in line at a theater.

Judging by the circuit of concerns aired then and now, none of it has worked very well.

Cops do what they can. They know the troublemakers from the truly troubled. They move people along and write plenty of reports for such things as panhandling without a license, second-degree trespassing, public urination, sleeping in a public park, and so on.

What happens after that is a joke.

The Forsyth District Court handles such cases, and its amounts to an expensive revolving door.

Take, for example, a guy known on the street as Woody. I made his acquaintance in late 2013; Woody had run up 217 misdemeanors, all nonviolent, for such nonsense as begging for alms, trespassing and … soliciting without a permit.

Typically he’d spend a night or two in jail, plead guilty and get sentenced to time served. Spin, rinse and repeat.

Until and unless a deeper and more systemic approach to the root causes — untreated mental illness and substance abuse, homelessness, hopelessness and poverty — the concerns and complaints are bound to continue.

Until or unless we find the resolve to dig deep to really help people like Woody, spectacles such as the guy unleashing that impressive stream of urine right outside a nice downtown restaurant will be with us.

No one within eyeshot of that performance seemed shocked or surprised. “Looks like Winston-Salem really is a city now,” another diner remarked on an otherwise unremarkable Friday night.

Dinner and a show. Unless we choose a harder road, panhandling, public urination and the like will just be sad side effects that come with a booming and bustling downtown.

Crystal Tower residents learn about what's ahead as proposed sale of building moves forward

About 100 residents at Crystal Towers learned Wednesday about the timeline and housing vouchers regarding the proposed sale of the public-housing building.

The Housing Authority of Winston-Salem has submitted its paperwork for the proposed sale of Crystal Towers to the Greensboro office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Larry Woods, HAWS’ chief executive officer, told the residents at a meeting at Crystal Towers.

HUD officials in Greensboro and Chicago will review and consider approving the proposal, he said.

That process could take six months to a year, Woods said. When HAWS receives approval for the building’s sale, HUD then will provide vouchers to each resident who lives in Crystal Towers’ 201 apartments to move elsewhere.

“We cannot sell the building until every tenant is housed,” Woods said. “I want to make sure that you have a safe, decent place to live.”

The Arden Group LLC, a real estate development company, has proposed to buy and renovate Crystal Towers.

HAWS officials plan to meet with Crystal Tower residents every three months to update them on the proposed sale, Woods said.

HAWS wants to sell Crystal Towers because it needs an estimated $7 million in repairs.

Crystal Towers, at 625 W. Sixth St., is an 11-story building that was built in 1970. Crystal Towers provides subsidized housing for older people and people with disabilities.

HUD will provide tenant vouchers for the residents to find apartments in public-housing complexes and in privately owned apartments, Woods told the residents. The vouchers will be extended 60 to 90 days after the residents receive them to give them time to find new homes.

HAWS officials will interview the residents to determine their needs, he said.

“You are protected,” Woods said to the residents. “You will not end up homeless.”

The residents will continue to pay rent based on 30% of their adjusted incomes, Woods said.

To be eligible for the vouchers, residents must have paid their rents on time at Crystal Towers, he said.

Some residents may want to move into Sunrise Towers or Healy Towers, which HAWS owns and manages, Woods said. If residents move into privately owned apartments, HUD will subsidize their utility payments.

Landlords must agree to accept the HUD vouchers from the residents, he said.

HAWS will hire a moving company to help residents move into their new homes, Woods said. The moving company will move residents within a 50-mile radius of Crystal Towers.

“It shouldn’t cost you anything for this disruption,” Woods said.

LaTonya Moody, a Crystal Towers resident, told a Journal reporter that she wasn’t satisfied with the situation at the building. Moody said that there are bedbugs in the laundry room and in the hallways.

“A lot of people are comfortable living like this,” Moody said.

Douglass Hayden, another Crystal Towers resident, said that many elderly residents want to remain at Crystal Towers despite the building’s problems.

“Those are the ones (that) I feel for because they don’t have anywhere else to go,” Hayden said.

Walkertown lawyer and onetime leader of white supremacist group is accused of mishandling client money

A Walkertown lawyer who has helped lead a white supremacist organization is prohibited from handling clients’ money, a Wake County judge ruled Monday.

The North Carolina State Bar is investigating Harold Ray Crews, 50, on allegations that he mishandled client funds, according to a consent order of preliminary injunction filed in Wake Superior Court.

Crews has served as chairman of the League of the South’s North Carolina chapter. It is not clear whether he still holds that post.

League of the South, which is headquartered in Killen, Ala., was formed in 1994 and promotes white southern nationalism. The Southern Poverty Law Center has listed League of the South as a hate group.

League of the South played a significant role in the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.

It was at that rally that white nationalist James Alex Fields Jr., drove his car into a crowed of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring two dozen others. Fields was convicted of murder and other crimes in state and federal courts and was given two life sentences.

League of the South and other white nationalist and neo-Confederate groups were protesting the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park.

Two months after the rally, Crews obtained an arrest warrant for DeAndre Harris, a 20-year-old black man who was severely beaten in a parking garage by a group of white nationalists. Crews accused Harris of hitting him in the face with a flashlight during the altercation.

He told a magistrate that he had been permanently scarred from the alleged assault.

Crews declined to comment in October 2017 to a Winston-Salem Journal reporter. He told the reporter to “go away.”

Harris was ultimately acquitted of the charge. Three men were convicted of beating Harris.

According to the consent order, the N.C. State Bar received information that Crews mishandled entrusted client funds. The order does not contain details about the allegations, such as how much money he is accused of mishandling or whether more than one client is involved in the allegations.

Katherine Jean, general counsel for the N.C. State Bar, said Wednesday that she could not comment on a pending investigation. She said the order does not prohibit Crews from practicing law.

She confirmed that the order only prohibits him from handling his clients’ money.

The order means Crews cannot write checks or withdraw funds from his clients’ accounts and he must provide the State Bar with records and any other information about how he handled his previous clients’ accounts.

The order indicates that Crews is cooperating with the State Bar and that he is waiving any right to appeal or challenge the consent order.

Crews is also barred from serving as an attorney-in-fact, a trustee, an executor, a personal representative or in any other capacity that involves handling his clients’ entrusted funds, the order said.

Crews has been practicing law since 1999. The number listed for his law office appeared to be disconnected Wednesday, and Crews could not be reached for comment.

Journal file 

Harold Crews

Blue Cross reduces average ACA premium rates second consecutive year

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of N.C. plans to reduce premium rates for the second consecutive year for individuals signing up for 2020 coverage on the federal health-insurance exchange.

The insurer said Wednesday it is requesting permission from the N.C. Insurance Department to lower Affordable Care Act premium rates by an average 5.2%. That’s on top of reducing rates by 4.1% in 2019.

For small businesses with one to 50 employees, Blue Cross is proposing an average rate decrease of 3.3% for their ACA plans.

By comparison, state insurance officials approved in October 2017 a 14.15 premium increase for 2018. The insurer initially asked for a 22.9% increase.

Blue Cross will make more detailed rate information public after Insurance Department approval of all of its ACA rates, which is expected by Aug. 31.

Blue Cross estimates it will cover more than 505,000 North Carolinians with exchange plans next year, counting people in every county. Individual premiums will be available in October. Open enrollment begins Nov. 1 and ends Dec. 15.

Blue Cross said the decreases were made possible primarily by its transition to value-based provider reimbursement and progress on reducing internal operating expenses. The combined rate decreases represent a $238 million reduction in health care costs for 2020.

In January, the insurer launched Blue Premier in collaboration with five major health systems — Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Cone Health, Duke University Health, UNC Hospitals and WakeMed.

Dr. Patrick Conway, Blue Cross’ president and chief executive, said that ”historically, our health-care system pays for services that may or may not improve a patient’s health, and our customers simply cannot afford this approach.”

With the existing “fee-for-service” system, patients or insurers pay providers for each office visit or treatment, creating additional revenue for repeat visits or hospital re-admissions.

The newer approach — called “value-based” contracting — typically offers providers incentives for better patient outcomes through emphasizing preventive and maintenance care, which tends to be less costly than treating patients after they have become sick.

“We want to be a national model for health care transformation, where insurers and providers are jointly responsible for delivering better, simpler, more affordable care,” Conway said.

“What these rate reductions show is that the move to value is working; when the focus is on quality and accountability, costs go down and the customer wins.”

The insurer said it has benefited from “gaining substantial insights about its ACA customers over the six years it has participated in the marketplace.”

“This information has allowed the company to better coordinate care for these customers and reduce the medical expenses for the care they require.”

Mark Hall, a law and public health professor at Wake Forest University, said the rate reductions “indicate that the ACA’s reforms to the private insurance are now working better following the disruptions caused by regulatory changes in 2017.”

Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation, said “it’s noteworthy that Blue Cross suggests a key factor in the proposed rate decrease is government policymakers’ decision not to add additional health insurance mandates and regulatory burdens.

“Blue Cross draws attention to the fact that these types of state government action tend to drive up costs and contribute to uncertainty about future policy changes.”

Blue Cross cautioned that premium rates vary based on location, age, subsidy amount and plan chosen.

Federal tax credits, known as premium subsides, are available for customers with household incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level. About 90% of Blue Cross’ current customers with individual ACA plans qualified this year.

Blue Cross will continue offering renewal of transitional plans in 2020. These are plans purchased between March 2010, when the ACA was signed, and October 2013 when regulations went into effect. Transitional plans do not meet ACA requirements but are allowed by federal law. .