In Moore Square Redevelopment, What Happens to Raleigh’s Poor?

Editor's Note: This is part two of a two-part series looking at Moore Square. The first piece looked at development in and around the square.

The daily bustle at downtown’s Salvation Army building feels different this month as staff busily pack up offices, bunks, classrooms and the cafeteria; places where thousands of poor and homeless men, women and children received warm coats and help with utility bills, learned job skills and ABCs, dined, showered and slept for more than 50 years on Moore Square.

In coming days, the agency will move 2.5 miles north on Capital Boulevard to a state-of-the-art facility with nearly three times the beds for women and children, a much larger cafeteria and more room for the social services residents throughout Wake County desperately need.

The new Salvation Army building on Capital Boulevard.

Karen Tam / Raleigh Public Record

The new Salvation Army building on Capital Boulevard.

In many ways, the move offers hope and opportunity for an even larger population of people in need.

But it also symbolizes a changing guard over Moore Square and downtown’s eastern edge, one that’s put fear in the minds of people who’ve spent their days catching up with friends on park benches, lounging in hammocks hung from historic oaks, gathering around a communal piano to sing and dance and waiting in lines for evening meals — sometimes the only sustenance of the day.

As the city and state finalize $14.8 million plans for a revitalized park, developers plan new apartment, retail and office complexes along its bounds, and more agencies mull moves out of downtown, the population of working poor and homeless fear what could transpire in months and years to come.

Can they spare $2 each evening to take the bus to and from the new soup kitchen? Where will weekend meals (previously delivered to the square) come from? What will happen to the property values and tax rates of residents in East and Southeast Raleigh? Will there be affordable or subsidized housing in downtown?

The Salvation Army building sits across from Moore Square and is in constant use. The Salvation Army is moving to a new location on Capitol Boulevard.

Karen Tam / Raleigh Public Record

The Salvation Army building sits across from Moore Square and is in constant use. The Salvation Army is moving to a new location on Capitol Boulevard.

“I don’t know what the homeless people are supposed to do,” said Joyce Johnson, 70, who spent five recent weeks on and around the square without a home. “It seems like Raleigh wants homeless people to be invisible.”

Members of the homeless and working poor, questioned one recent day on the square, say they’re concerned not just about meals once the Salvation Army goes away, but where they’ll spend time when the park closes for renovations. And, when the square reopens, if they’ll be as free to hang out on its benches and walkways.

Joyce Johnson talks about the problems of the homeless as she sits in Moore Square.

Karen Tam / Raleigh Public Record

Joyce Johnson talks about the problems of the homeless as she sits in Moore Square.

They welcome any upgrades that are inclusive to all (such as public restrooms and a kids play area), but they’ve already felt an increasing police presence near the park. Several people were arrested for panhandling in the days prior to May’s Artsplosure event. Banning smoking from the Moore Square Bus Station also felt like a direct attack on the men and women who spend time on the Square, they said.

“They do a lot of harassing and racial profiling in the [downtown] parks, picking on the homeless,” said Gregory Harsfield of Southeast Raleigh. “We think it’s going to get worse.”

Agency and city leaders insist those fears aren’t falling on deaf ears.

For example, the Salvation Army will ease its transition to a new facility by initially busing people from Moore Square for its weeknight meals. The facility will also begin serving at 4:30 p.m. to give men time to get back to the downtown men’s shelter, which opens at 6 p.m.

Salvation Army staffers hope to hear the concerns from former Moore Square patrons on those bus rides, and to address them during the months to follow.

“We certainly do not want to be an organization that shifts the soup line away with no plan,” said Paige Bagwell, the Salvation Army’s director of operations and communications.

A Segway tour cruises through Moore Square.

Karen Tam / Raleigh Public Record

A Segway tour cruises through Moore Square.

The Raleigh Rescue Mission, which is also considering a move outside of downtown to make more room for its services, has been busy organizing a new group to coordinate the many churches and volunteer groups that deliver food to Moore Square on weekends.

Called Wake Area Missions Ministries, or WAMM, its role is to coordinate meals and other services in new locations outside of downtown. The hope, says the rescue mission’s Director of Development Bruce Storer, is that meals can be served closer to existing homeless camps and poor communities, and at various times throughout the week and weekend — rather than back to back or overlapping, like they do now.

“The vast majority will be no further walk than what they’re doing already, and in many cases, it’ll be shorter,” Storer said. “And we eliminate chaos on one of the busiest downtown blocks.”

Sitting on the grass in Moore Square, Larry Underwood, left, says he sleeps outdoors and Samuel L. Johnson, right, has a place to live on Avent Ferry Road.

Karen Tam / Raleigh Public Record

Sitting on the grass in Moore Square, Larry Underwood, left, says he sleeps outdoors and Samuel L. Johnson, right, has a place to live on Avent Ferry Road.

The city and Raleigh police have worked closely with the agencies to be sure all of its residents are being served during the transition on downtown’s east edge.

“There is no question that we see this as an area that can serve all residents and all people,” said Mitchell Silver, the city’s planning director. “That was true from the very beginning when we started the Moore Square planning exercise.”

But that doesn’t mean the poorest population of the city will be a target for new residences, restaurants and retail stores. Most of the new development will be market-rate in order for developers to get the returns they need to justify the projects, Silver said.

Higher-end development could mean that property values increase near the square, and tax rates climb. But that’s only if longstanding residents begin to sell their land and homes.

“We’re trying to explain to the public that the biggest threat to gentrification is their neighbor — they have a legal right to sell their property,” Silver said.

Tony Smith from Georgia, stays cool up in a tree in Moore Square.

Karen Tam / Raleigh Public Record

Tony Smith from Georgia, stays cool up in a tree in Moore Square.

So far, the speculation that happened in Oakwood and other parts of downtown hasn’t hit East or Southeast Raleigh. Besides the few properties in the two blocks around the Square, values have stayed constant.

“It’s still a neighborhood in transition,” Silver said.

In any case, city and agency leaders are adamant that the plight of the homeless and poor will not be forgotten as downtown Raleigh continues to evolve.

“What we want is what’s best for the city of Raleigh,” Storer said. “But also what’s best for the homeless people and working poor that need assistance. And we’re working toward a collaborative effort to serve both.”

7 thoughts on “In Moore Square Redevelopment, What Happens to Raleigh’s Poor?

  1. I don’t understand the backlash over trying to make one of downtown Raleigh’s most oft-used and prominent public green spaces a more inviting place to be. It’d be one thing if the people that typically occupy the park cared anything about cleaning up after themselves, not throwing their trash all over the grass, and not harassing residents who just want to enjoy it. However, currently that is not the case. Moore Square is less than a block from where I live and I walk the extra 3 blocks so I can enjoy some peace and quiet in Nash Square. Raleigh is an expanding city, it’s time we stop allocating some of our most valuable real estate to a cause that does not benefit the city in any way. The park is an eyesore as is and you would be lying if you said otherwise.

  2. The redevelopment is about economic development and the overall benefit to the City as a whole. Currently, the overwhelming homeless population that hangs around and trashes the park are not conducive to this goal, simply put.

    We may not like to call it like it is because it may sound harsh or ‘uncaring’ but we have 2 choices, leave Moore Square alone and it will continue to flounder or we invest and make it a destination for ALL, not just a place to loiter, throw cigarette butts and panhandle. And yes, this will mean reducing the presence or at least reducing the appearance that every time you go to Moore Square you will have to encounter someone hitting you up for a dollar to ‘get something to eat’.

  3. Thanks for the story and research. Good job on part one and I look forward to reading part two. I love Silver’s Freudian slip of calling the citizen-involvement an “exercise.” :)

    Observations: Don’t count on the city’s planning director Mitch Silver to give you the straight up scoop. He has a vested interest in spinning things, which is why he makes himself so readily available to reporters. Keep digging, follow the money…and trust your instincts. And again, always follow the money.

    P.S. Most of what passes for citizen involvement (facilitated by Raleigh’s bloated “community services” unit) is nothing more than pre-scripted sets of “exercises,” offering form but little substance, to produce pre-determined (and often illogical) recommendations to serve as support for a broader, undisclosed, profit-oriented agenda.

  4. @unique1: Thanks for pointing out my oversight. I just read part one and sadly not very impressed with its lack of anything other than the same old same old echo-chamber of cronies lining up for corporate welfare handouts. Odd to read about them begging for tax/city favors in the same article wherein homeless beggars are being chased out. We’d have a better city with fewer corporate-welfare/crony beggars as well — and no doubt fewer homeless folks who got cheated out of their livelihoods and jobs.

    It’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs to read the Raleigh Rescue Mission’s careerist development director kissing butt to developers and the city when given the opportunity to comment. If I weren’t so stupid, I might think a dedicated advocate for the poor would have taken the opportunity to say something in their interests rather than echo the official line that the homeless need to be removed. Yuk. I suppose he has some career aspirations to leverage cooperation for a raise or new job with the astroturf group mentioned. Double yuk.

    Mitch Silver is such a phony — saying that homeowners can decide to sell or not to sell when he’s doing everything possible to make sure that they definitely will sell. FACT: If the city did in your neighborhood what it is doing there, through sustained targeted purchases, rezonings, corporate welfare giveaways to their buddies, you too would enjoy the same peace of mind knowing that you too could continue enjoying your neighborhood and home? Triple yuk.

    Anyhow, let’s all hope and pray that Gordon Smith III gets his visit from Santa (starring Mitch Silver) to buy up his property for much more than he paid some old lady for it after the City condemned it.

  5. I say good riddance. The ‘homeless’ also attracts a criminal element often forgotten. My wife used to work and live in moore square and was mugged twice upon leaving work, once at knifepoint. Keep that crap in southeast Raleigh and let’s make Moore Square a safe and family friendly downtown highlight. I also think that eliminating the Cat #1 Capital Blvd bus route would also help with crime as it would stop busing a lot of thugs back and forth from Mini City to downtown and back.

  6. I would ask kindly that folks in Raleigh take a good look at the transformation of Bryant Park in New York City as a fantastic precedent square. This was a place that was in a shockingly desperate place years ago. The transformations of Bryant Park were inspired by the famous urban geographer William H. White who advocated for the removal of poor urban design conditions such as blind corners and the introduction of time-tested urban program to enliven the Square. Through these design improvements, a Square that was previously referred to as “needle park” (per its association with drug use) in the 1980′s, was dramatically transformed through subtle design improvements into one of the most healthy, exciting, and beautiful urban squares in the world. Bryant Park now enjoys the international recognition as the most widely used public space in the world. Studies have found that the number of homeless citizens has not changed. What has changed is a renewed sense of civic ownership and a broader cross-section of citizens have been welcomed into the Square. Of course Raleigh is not New York City, but the lessons learned should point to the the potential of Moore Square to offer a genuine promise of a healthy urban transformation that respects the important history of the Square and the rights of all citizens of Raleigh to enjoy one of the cities most important civic treasures.