Sunday, July 21, 2024

NHC circles back to restricting the homeless from sleeping on county properties

A photo Deputy County Manager Tim Burgess sent New Hanover County commissioners in February 2022 of county-owned property fronted by Third, Grace and Chestnut Streets. (Courtesy/NHC)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Commissioners are prepared to once again consider a staff-recommended ordinance that would restrict the use of county-owned properties by unsheltered individuals.

After shooting down a similar request last year, the New Hanover County Commissioners will vote Monday on approving changes to county regulations in an effort to deter the homeless population from sleeping and leaving belongings in targeted areas.

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The proposed ordinance changes, applied to all county-owned and leased properties, addresses the following:

  • Prohibits sleeping on county-owned properties from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
  • Items left unattended will be subject to disposal
  • Parking decks and parking lots are for parking and associated activities only
  • Entrances to county facilities and associated areas are for ingress and egress only

The agenda also notes parts of the ordinance would not apply to emergency management sheltering events, county employees while on duty, and the general public within a county facility for business.

County spokesperson Jessica Loeper said complaints about the downtown library on Chestnut Street, as well as the adjacent parking deck on Second Street have come from residents, businesses, and comments on social media. Port City Daily has seen firsthand numerous emails going to government officials, at both the city and county levels.

One resident reached out to PCD directly Jan. 11.

“I work downtown and am forced to use the 3rd street parking deck,” the person wrote, yet did not sign a name. “It is a dangerous and disgusting area to have to walk through with all the human waste and open air drug use. There have been numerous fights, stabbings, rapes and overdoses within the last few months with nothing being done.”

Complaints started more than a year ago, to the point commissioners considered first passing the ordinance in spring 2022. Yet, it also included police issuing a civil penalty if the rules — sleeping on county property between 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and leaving belongings unattended — were not followed. However, the ordinance failed to pass.

Commissioners decided to go with a different solution to connect those in need with services. 

By fall, the county and city entered a joint agreement to start the initiative “Getting Home.” The program pairs county social workers with Wilmington Police Department officers for outreach to engage and offer support services to unsheltered individuals.

The program has been in effect for almost two months and county manager Chris Coudriet noted in an email to county leadership, the team has “linked more than a few persons with the support service imagined when the program launched.” However, he noted issues with litter, public urination, and personal conflicts leading to violence remain apparent.

He iterated to staff the need to “ramp up” efforts in helping the community comply — not enforce — with local laws, rules and regulations.

“The impetus here is largely about keeping the public square safe and clean, which is a standard expectation we have for all our properties,” Coudriet wrote in a statement to PCD. “On the county’s downtown block, there has been violence, drug activity, and incredibly unsanitary conditions.”

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office reported over the last year, two incidents of robbery, one death investigation, three drug and narcotics violations, one lost/found property, one simple assault, one destruction or vandalism, and three larcenies, specifically at the county library address, 201 Chestnut St.

As far as the parking deck at 212 N. Second, Lt. Jerry Brewer said he located one report for vandalism but was researching further, as he noted, “that seems off.”

Newcomer to the board, commissioner LeAnn Pierce said after speaking with the sheriff’s office and seeing the issues firsthand, safety is her top concern.

“We’re a compassionate society but in the same sense, we have to help people get the services they need,” she said. “But we’ve got to believe we’re taking care of all the citizens.”

The county has hired an industrial cleaning company to monitor the sites daily, but it’s not a long-term sustainable solution.

“I just found out we’re spending so much money every day to clean it up,” Pierce said. “That’s just crazy. If that’s true, it doesn’t make sense to have to go in every day and clean it up.”

Last March, when staff proposed the ordinance the first time, commissioner Jonathan Barfield was the only dissenting vote. 

Barfield clarified to PCD on a call Thursday he was against the $50 fine attached to the penalties, not the ordinance.

“If I had $50, I wouldn’t be homeless,” Barfield said. “I have no problem with the ordinance itself, but I do have a problem with fining people.”

Per protocol, commissioners must unanimously approve the ordinance changes in order to forgo a second reading when there is not an associated public hearing.

By the time the ordinance was brought up again at the April 2022 meeting, opponents had spoken out against it in a formal letter to commissioners. They were concerned the ordinance presented more obstacles than resolutions, as signed by officials from Cape Fear Council of Government’s Homeless Interagency Council, Good Shepherd Center, Family Promise, Salvation Army and A Safe Place. 

“I can’t do this to people,” then-chair Olson-Boseman said after rejecting a motion to table the vote instead of scrapping it entirely.

Commissioners Olson-Boseman, Bill Rivenbark and Rob Zapple reversed course from their support that March and voted against the move. 

This time around Zapple has had a change of heart.

“The problem is not going away; we’re trying to get to the root of it,” he said.

Zapple added that new signage is part of the solution, a factor not suggested previously.

“That’s the bureaucratic answer,” Zapple said. “This is not just ‘no loitering.’ It will point to state statute. Put a little oomph behind it to make it clear. That will be backed up with personal conversations with the DSS/WPD partnership.”

Coudriet said in an email to staff that communications efforts from workers will also be a back-up to the signage to reinforce the rules.

Commissioner Deb Hays said she is still 100% in support of the ordinance.

“We’ve got the people in place, policies in place and support in place now,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely the right time.”

Hays, also chair of the Wilmington Downtown Inc. board, is referring to the work done by WDI with its Block by Block program and outreach specialist Jack Morris, who has been collaborating with the Getting Home initiative

The ordinance is not “targeted” at the homeless population, according to Hays, but she said they are the main group of people prevalent in downtown county-owned properties, namely the library and parking deck at Chestnut and Second streets. 

“The ordinance being put out there is a health and safety concern,” she echoed of the county manager’s concerns. “Some people say it sounds cold and cruel but honestly the issue is, people down here are homeless; public property is not their home.”

Hays also said residents are not able to take advantage of the library or parking deck out of fear — also a concern for Pierce.

“I heard from library staff not as many children come there anymore,” Pierce said. “The public should not be afraid to use the facilities they pay for.”

To Hays, the ordinance change is a “big picture” solution for everybody. 

Next week’s revisions do not include any language of a monetary citation associated with violations. It does note individuals may be subject to removal by law enforcement as a trespasser or criminal charges for breaking any part of the ordinance.

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for patrolling the county-owned properties, but Zapple said deputies don’t have the authority to do much more than ask people to “move along.”

“And if they say ‘no,’ the next thing they can do is pick them up and take them to jail,” he added. “To me, there’s way too much of a gap [between] doing nothing and doing something.”

Zapple, who recently stepped in as interim executive director of Thalian Hall after the passing of Tony Rivenbark in July, said he’s been able to keep a closer eye on the situation as he spends more time downtown. In the past week, he’s noticed less accumulation of items, including clothing, blankets and belongings left on the streets.

Coudriet said as part of Getting Home’s street outreach, the group created “bin dens,” which provide secure storage at no cost for the belongings of anyone experiencing homelessness. It’s aimed at keeping the streets free of clutter.

Twice a day, outreach workers meet individuals who want to stow away their items at a storage facility downtown. It’s within walking distance, Hays clarified.

“One of the biggest issues I hear from the homeless is they don’t want to go to shelters,” she said. “They say people steal their things.”

While there’s only been “marginal” participation so far, Hays hopes more individuals will take advantage of the opportunity as engagement continues.

Loeper explained the county will be sharing additional stats about the bin dens, as well as the outreach work, at Monday’s commissioners meeting.

“This is a long, involved, in-depth process,” Hays said. “They have to gain the trust of people who have no trust for anybody and do not want to take responsibility for anything, primarily for themselves. We want to get them to a better place in their lives and help them do that.”

Barfield pointed out not everyone is open and willing to accept aid, though.

“[B]ut for those that do, we can find the right wrap-around services to help them is our goal,” Barfield said. “We have invested and are investing a good bit of money to do just that. If you move folks from one location, they’ll still go somewhere else.”

He used the comparison of pulling weeds. Unless the root comes out, it will just grow back.

“We put long Band-Aids on situations or pacify things as opposed to getting to the root of the problem,” Barfield said. “[Being homeless] is something that cuts across every line, and what I kept saying is it could be anybody.”

Pierce said it’s difficult to know what the best course of action is.

“If it was easy, someone else would have found a solution by now,” she said, speaking of all nationwide cities facing similar situations.

Chair Bill Rivenbark did not return a call for comment.

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