'We don't feel safe': Harassment, threats make Franklin Street less welcoming say business owners, UNC students

17 June 2022

— Business owners and customers on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill are concerned and frustrated with an increase in crime and harassment.

They say they are worried for their safety after recent events – like a stabbing with non-life-threatening injuries on Monday, a recent public nudity incident and constant harassment of their employees.

“One gentleman out there literally threatened to rape one of my bartenders a few weeks ago,” says Andrew Creech, bar manager of Blue Horn Lounge.

He says the issues have increased since businesses re-opened and students returned after COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Public drinking out on the street, drug use on the street, people smoking crack in front of the courthouse of all places. A lot of violent fights, aggressive behavior, people being assaulted or threatened to be assaulted, or sexually assaulted,” Creech said.

Creech says he’s very worried every day – not only for himself leaving late at night, but also for his female staff.

“Every time we come into work it’s like, ‘What now? What now? What today?’ I would like to be able to walk down the street without being yelled at and without having to watch my back,” says Mandey Brown, who owns Zog’s and Imbibe.

University of North Carolina graduate student James Fay has also noticed the change.

“It feels like they’ve really allowed the homeless element to really take over sections of Franklin Street,” Fay told WRAL News.

Fay says he and his friends have changed their habits due to the safety concerns.

“Given the option, more and more of us are hanging out at each other’s houses or going to Durham, going to Raleigh. Franklin Street really isn’t as welcoming a place anymore,” Fay said.

Fay says a lot of his friends no longer want to meet up on Franklin Street at 11 p.m., nervous about walking past areas of higher crime.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger acknowledged the issue downtown.

“COVID really has taken a toll on everyone,” Hemminger said. “We’re not seeing crime as much as we are seeing, mostly it’s considered harassment, and people are feeling uncomfortable. We’re working on it; it takes time.”

Hemming said arresting people is not a long-term answer.

“They can only be held for 24 hours, and they just come right back,” she said.

Creech and Brown do not want to criminalize homelessness, but they argue that more needs to be done.

“This is not a compassion issue anymore. It’s a safety issue, and we don’t feel safe,” Brown said. “They need to be removed from the area right now, and then the preventative measures can be put into place.”

“People that are committing petty crimes just to survive is not the issue. They need outreach, not court dates. The people committing violent crimes won’t take the outreach when it’s offered to them, so they need the court dates. They need to go through the system of some sorts,” Creech said.

Hemminger explained that the Street Outreach and Harm Reduction Program, or SOHRAD, had been effective. However, the team was funded by CARES Act money, which is near running out.

She said in its latest budget, the town of Chapel Hill allocated funding to the IFC, or Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, for continued operation of SOHRAD.

“We are determined to make this better by helping people, not just by removing people,” Hemminger said.

She also said the town is working on funding for a new ambassador program. Employees can give directions, clean up trash and monitor the area.

“They’ll be called the clean and green team, so there will be more eyes on the street and more people out there,” Hemminger explained.

Chapel Hill police tell WRAL News their Crisis Unit is actively working on issues on Franklin Street. They are also still investigating the Monday’s stabbing, but they believe it was an isolated incident.

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