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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

‘No trespassing’: Officials lay down the law, pose further restrictions on frequented homeless encampments

NCDOT placed “No Trespassing” signs on the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge on Third Street last month, and will enforce second-degree trespassing, effective Feb. 1. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New countywide regulations will limit where people experiencing homelessness can sleep, while the state is also cracking down on trespassing enforcement.

Monday, New Hanover County Commissioners approved 4-1 (Jonathan Barfield dissented) an update to chapter 38 of its ordinances, which now prohibits sleeping on county-owned properties from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and states parking decks and lots are for parking and associated activities only. Leaders have expressed main areas of concern are the downtown library and Second Street parking deck, where unsheltered people often congregate.

READ MORE: Nonprofits protest homeless ordinance as it moves to second reading

Jan. 23 commissioners passed a first reading of the ordinance change, which also includes putting up explicit signage of the rules. A week earlier, the North Carolina Department of Transportation placed signs at the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge on Third Street notifying the public the agency intends to enforce trespassing laws on the property. The latter move was a collaborative effort among the City of Wilmington, New Hanover County, local officials, Cape Fear Community College, and Wilmington Downtown, Inc., according to the NCDOT.

Both NCDOT and the county noted the need for stricter regulations are in interest in public health and safety. Officials have pointed to instances of litter, drug use, public urination and criminal activity as reasons to clean up the areas.

After commissioners passed the first reading — Barfield was the sole dissenting vote then as well — a second reading was needed since there wasn’t unanimous approval, nor was there a public hearing associated with the agenda item.

The amended ordinance is now in effect, though NHC spokesperson Jessica Loeper said the city and county’s joint Getting Home team — pairing social workers with officers for street outreach — will engage individuals impacted by the change this week.

“Over the next few days, the county’s street outreach team will be speaking with individuals and sharing the rules of the new ordinance with them,” Loeper said. “This has been a topic of discussion over the past several weeks that this could be a possibility, so this will not come as a surprise to most individuals.”

She also noted enforcement of the new regulations by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office will be a last resort “only when necessary.”

“[The social work] team will continue operating with care and compassion, and will encourage compliance,” Loeper said. “Their work involves assessing needs and connecting people to resources, and that will continue — to include referring people to locations like The Healing Place, which offers an overnight emergency shelter.”

READ MORE: The Healing Place set to open Feb. 1

Last week, Port City Daily spoke with people partnering on the opening of a new day shelter to provide safe, warm refuge for the unsheltered population. The faith-based group works directly with the homeless and prior to Monday’s vote said it did not think “kicking the can down the road” was the answer.

“I realize something has to be done,” Rev. Jamie Thompson of Anchor United Methodist Church said. “But we can rule out bad ideas still.”

However, Hope Recovery United Methodist Rev. Meg McBride said last week she expected the ordinance to pass.

McBride and Thompson weren’t the only ones disappointed in the ordinance. A UNCW social work student, Katie Chappell, reached out via email to chair Bill Rivenbark after the vote this week.

“I work with most of the individuals that are going to be affected by this ordinance and can truly say from speaking with them they are so sick and tired of being treated like animals,” she wrote. “[Y]ou and the rest of the board should be ashamed at how you are treating fellow human beings.”

Also the vice chair of the Cape Fear Continuum of Care providing advocacy and services for the unsheltered population, McBride was surprised to learn NCDOT began trespassing individuals from the Third Street bridge. She stumbled across the signage downtown two weeks ago.

On Jan. 17, NCDOT and WPD placed 10 “No Trespassing” signs at the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge. NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland said the entity has been monitoring the situation since last summer as health and safety risks became “increasingly severe” both for residents and emergency responders. She also said the department will clean up the area only after people have vacated the property.

Effective Feb. 1, NCDOT gave permission to Wilmington Police Department officers to enforce the trespassing law at the bridge, from Third to Eighth streets. 

NCDOT Division 3 engineer Chad Kimes sent a letter to WPD Chief Donny Williams Jan. 13, noting a warning period was posted for awareness of the upcoming changes prior to the rules being imposed.

“We want to ensure residents of the encampments are provided with a reasonable opportunity to take advantage of the services and resources that have been offered via the Getting Home and Municipal Service District outreach teams before the enforcement of trespassing begins,” Kimes wrote.

WPD Lt. Jason Nichols and WDI’s street outreach team leader Jack Morris visited with the population camping out under the bridge to give them a heads-up when enforcement would begin.

Nichols spoke at the Jan. 19 Municipal Services District Committee, informing members of the visit to take place and assuring officials would give ample warning.

“‘Hey, we don’t want to come out and look like the bad guys, but you’re going to have to go per general statute,’” Nichols said they would communicate to the homeless population. “We’ll start citing and if it gets down to it, we will be able to take them to jail.”

The notices posted near the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge reference general statute 14-159.13, second-degree trespassing. The signs state:

“All persons residing and inhabiting space on this property have been trespassed by the N.C. Department of Transportation as of February 1, 2023. Please vacate this property ASAP to avoid being removed at a further date with possible criminal charges.” 

Nichols said the individuals will likely disperse throughout the downtown community after leaving the bridge.

“But we’ll have to address that when it happens,” he said. 

Nichols touched on a problem that has already happened in downtown Wilmington. The homeless used to congregate at the Riverwalk Visitor’s Information Center before it was shuttered in 2020 for renovations. Thereafter, groups shifted and began hanging out at the library more often, eventually migrating to areas underneath the bridge.

READ MORE: Deep Dive: Riverwalk renovations highlight need to address downtown unsheltered population

“I don’t know where people are gonna go,” McBride said. “Folks will move on from the library and go somewhere else and then in whatever number of weeks or months, we’ll be at the commissioners’ office again and discussing another property.”

Nichols urged the MSD committee to reach out if they see anyone by the bridge so they can be linked up with resources offered from community programs.

Another concerned citizen emailed commissioners Friday urging them to not vote for the ordinance. 

“There’s no way to de-escalate a situation when police have shown up with the intent to arrest and jail someone,” Charles Thompson wrote. “This is a very violent process, which will not only be used to remove people from the library, but it will push those disgruntled citizens throughout the city carrying wounds from this violence.”

McBride said she’s had conversations with both WPD and the New Hanover County’s Sheriff’s Office and discourages sending homeless people to jail.

“Jail is traumatic,” she said. “Why would I go to jail if I haven’t done anything wrong, except that I fell on hard times and I can’t afford to be sheltered?”

NCDOT has been partnering with WDI on cleaning up the property under the bridge regularly. It spent $7,894 between July and December 2022 picking up trash and disposing of items. NCDOT crews have another clean-up scheduled this month.

WDI vice president Christina Haley reported at the January MSD meeting that WDI crews held two clean-ups at the downtown library and three under the bridge, collecting 85 bags of trash and 50 hypodermic needles.

Between NCDOT and the Getting Home initiative, a total of 8,300 pounds of trash was collected last year.

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