Wednesday, April 24, 2024

‘Moving target’: Nonprofits, commissioner say new county ordinance deters access to services for homeless

New Hanover County commissioner Jonathan Barfield spoke at Monday’s State of Homelessness forum about being opposed to the new county ordinance. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — After the county passed new rules prohibiting sleeping on county-owned property last month, nonprofits have raised concerns about the ripple effect it’s created throughout the community.

Those experiencing homelessness have been pushed away from normal gathering spots and scattered throughout the community, making it difficult for providers to locate them. 

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

ALSO: Nonprofits protest homeless ordinance as it moves to second reading

“Their legs were cut out from under them,” Vigilant Hope director of community engagement Laura Bullock said to the audience of those trying to help.

She specifically was referring to assistance at the downtown library and Second Street parking deck, which for months has had congregations of people camping out. 

To combat the issue, the county and city funded Getting Home, which pairs New Hanover County social workers and Wilmington Police Department officers to connect those experiencing homelessness with needed services. The team’s service area started at the library and parking deck.

“They were helping people and now they can’t find them,” New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said at the forum. “And for me, the move was all about downtown, was all about money — the downtown business trying to protect resources there as opposed to looking out for people.”

Barfield was speaking at a state of homelessness forum Monday evening, hosted by faith-based nonprofit Vigilant Hope. He was one of four panelists invited to provide their perspectives on the topic and how it impacts their daily work.

Joining Barfield was Vigilant Hope’s Lawrence Palmer, who formerly lived on the streets, as well as Pastor Meg McBride of Hope Recovery United Methodist Church, and Living Hope Street Ministry founder Christine Perez. 

About 200 people gather at the Harrelson Center to hear more about the state of homelessness in the county. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

More than 200 people were in attendance. The goal was to discuss issues surrounding lack of affordable housing, the struggles families face living on the streets and what community members can — and shouldn’t — do to help.

“Take a deep breath, you’re about to go on a ride,” Bullock told the audience. 

Bullock said talking politics is new and uncomfortable for the nonprofit but necessary. Conditions surrounding the unsheltered, including Salvation Army temporarily closing, lack of affordable housing and increased policing, is affecting the people it serves.

“It’s shined a light on what is happening to people who are really important to us,” she said Monday.

Palmer, who was homeless for about a decade and is also five years sober, said the community probably only sees maybe “40% of the population.”

“They want to hide because they don’t want to deal with being discriminated against,” he said during the forum. “We’re all human.”

Good Shepherd community engagement coordinator Liz Carbone called this category of individuals “hidden homeless.” 

“And if there’s one thing that I hope that you can take away from this presentation tonight, is that it’s very difficult for us to quantify the hundreds, if not thousands, of people in our community in this county, who we don’t see a Good Shepherd, we don’t see downtown at the library, that are very much struggling,” she said during her presentation. “They’re living among us every day.”

Carbone also noted the number of people experiencing homelessness has actually decreased in the last decade. It’s due to the introduction of housing choice vouchers and the creation of permanent supportive housing such as Lakeside Reserve — a 40-unit complex for chronically homeless people with disabilities.

Panelists praised city and county efforts for the Getting Home initiative but not without recognizing hardships being placed on the population from the very government trying to help.

New Hanover County’s Code of Ordinances Chapter 38-34 prohibits people from sleeping on county-owned properties from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., states items left unattended will be subject to disposal, distinguishes parking decks and parking lots are for parking and associated activities only, and that entrances to county facilities and associated areas are for ingress and egress only.

Yet, it’s passing — voted on 4-1, with Barfield dissenting — came to be mainly from complaints regarding the downtown library and Second Street parking deck. Officials cited it had become a “public health and safety” concern, due to litter, open drug use, and public urination. 

Bullock invited to the forum employees of the Getting Home initiative, as well as members of Wilmington Downtown Inc.’s Street Outreach program, contracting with social worker Jack Morris to engage with the homeless population and connect them with wraparound services. Vigilant Hope partners and collaborates with each entity daily. No one from either organization attended. 

“They’re not really allowed to be present in this space or to speak on this right now,” Bullock told the crowd. “They’re in a unique position because they’re funded by city and county, so they walk a fine line. But they’re doing incredible work.”

County spokesperson Alex Riley clarified the outreach team was invited but did not attend though it had nothing to do with being a county agency.

“They have participated in numerous events, meetings, and gatherings with our community’s homeless network and partners, and will continue to do that,” he told PCD.

Riley also confirmed the interlocal agreement with the City of Wilmington for the Getting Home team covers all of New Hanover County, not just downtown. Collectively, the government entities put $3.4 million into launching the program.

“The team’s initial focus was on the downtown area because that’s where the need seemed greatest,” Riley said.

“This has not gone away just because it’s not where it was before,” McBride said at the forum. “It’s still there.”

The county does not track data on the homeless population’s locations. Though, it does have stats on its program’s effects so far.

Since December, Getting Home has connected 61 individuals to shelter, five to permanent supportive housing, 17 to substance abuse treatment, and 11 to employment resources. The staff also connected 184 to intangible services or providers, such as access to medical or mental health services, assisting with housing applications, connecting someone to AA or NA meetings, or linking up with court assistance. It helped 238 connect with tangible services, such as arranging meals, shower or laundry, taking someone to the pharmacy to get prescriptions, providing bedding, bus passes or clothing, or assisting with applications for Food and Nutrition, Medicaid and Social Security.

Since March 1, about one month after the ordinance was approved restricting access to county-owned property, the team has helped one individual access shelter, one access substance abuse treatment, assisted two with employment resources, and connected 35 individuals to intangible services.

“The services our team provides are becoming widely known throughout the community, therefore, the number of interactions and individuals our team is working with has steadily increased since our program’s inception,” Riley said.

He also confirmed the Getting Home team has been able to reconnect with some but not all individuals who originally congregated at the library. 

“Our program is set up and was always intended to reach unsheltered individuals wherever they are (whether downtown or elsewhere), so that work has continued and has recently expanded more to outside of downtown,” Riley wrote to PCD in an email. “We continue to go to any area of the county where it is needed.”

While McBride agreed the library was not an “ideal space” for congregating, she also said libraries are meant to be welcoming.

“[W]hat it created was a sense of normalcy in a very abnormal world,” she said. “If not here, then where? I would have loved to have seen a ‘where’ before there was a ‘no.’”

McBride called the library a common space for people to be found by mental health and other services providers, as well as generous community members looking to donate goods or bring food.

However, McBride and Bullock both pointed out good intentions could also be part of the growing problem. Often, food containers from donated items get left behind as trash; people can only carry so much when living on the streets, so donated clothing and blankets often end up left behind.

Bullock encouraged people to ask instead of assuming what someone might need: “Is this something that would benefit you?”

The Getting Home team has intercepted 30 bags of non-perishable donations dropped off at the library or other locations from community members. The county said it rerouted the donations to different service providers and also disposed of 40 bags of perishable items.

McBride cited a peer support specialist, who works with an Assertive Community Treatment team, providing medication to those on the streets. She said by doing that, it helps keep homeless individuals out of jail and the hospital.

“Since the ordinance has been passed, she’s been unable to locate a good deal of those clients on a regular basis,” McBride said. “Going into the hospital or going into jail is just creating more trauma for people; that’s upsetting.”

Increased law enforcement presence has also created a troubling impact for the nonprofits. The Getting Home team has assisted with 23 law enforcement calls since December; six since March 1.

“After the ordinance was passed, there was heavy policing at the library and I have a hard time understanding how you’re going to invest money in a community policing model, which is asking people to trust law enforcement — which is really hard if you’re been arrested or spent time in jail — and then go and undo that,” McBride said. “That makes no sense to me at all, and I think that needs to be named.” 

When asked if patrols have increased downtown, New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Jerry Brewer said the answer isn’t black and white.

“The short answer is, yes, we have increased patrol since we passed the new ordinance, since there are new issues there,” he said. “But did we reassign people or anything like that? No.”

He said deputies already patrol county parks, one of being Story Park outside the library. Also the downtown task force was instructed to keep an extra eye on the area to “make sure no one is breaking the ordinance,” Brewer added.

At the forum, Barfield expressed disappointment in the added library patrolling following the ordinance’s approval.

“What we did didn’t solve the problem,” he said and added that it instead exacerbated it. “We’ve got to do a whole lot more and I think the ordinance really disrupted and canceled out the great work that was being made.”

Riley told PCD officers have made a “tremendous effort” to build trusting relationships. The county has not witnessed less willingness from the homeless population to get assistance from the Getting Home team.

Barfield said at the forum he opposed the ordinance because he didn’t want to criminalize being homeless.

“Just because you move people from one block to another, doesn’t solve the problem,” he said.

He suggested the county use money to provide shelter for the homeless, as it did during the pandemic. When Covid-19 became prevalent, the county used federal money to work with Good Shepherd to house the homeless so the virus wouldn’t spread throughout the community.

“Why can’t we do the same thing?” Barfield asked. “And then what I’ve noticed now is you have these fields that are wooded areas being cleared out to make them a bit more visible.”

McBride suggested the county offer resources to help the nonprofits reach the homeless, as opposed to them being a “moving target.” The city and county both fund nonprofit organizations annually, many of which provide homelessness services, but McBride was referring to an “alternative solution” to kicking them off certain property.

The ordinance’s aftereffects have also trickled down into Perez’s mission. She serves lunch every Wednesday to almost 70 people. Most people hang out within walking distance of the Red Cross parking lot, nearby where Perez sets up her operation. For two years she has utilized space owned by Bethesda Church but recently learned she must find a new location within the next few weeks.

“One of the things we’re finding out from neighbors is because the ordinance passed, they’re being pushed to go and hang out in the parking lot I serve at, even on the days I’m not there, which of course is causing neighbors to get angry and upset,” Perez said. “So now, if I don’t have a spot to replace, I don’t know where to tell my friends to find us.”

Port City Daily reached out to the Bethesda Christian Life Church to inquire why the lot can no longer be used. The woman who answered the phone, after acknowledging she was the correct contact, said: “You said you’re a news reporter?”

Upon confirmation, she followed up: “I cannot help you with that; I don’t have anything to tell you.”

This is the second church pushing back on resources that could help the homeless population. McBride and Perez, along with Anchor United Methodist Church Pastor Jamie Thompson and the Feast Gathering’s Randy Evans, were working to open a day shelter downtown at Holy Ghost Tabernacle Church on Fourth Street. It’s where Thompson’s church meets when not gathering downtown at the riverwalk. 

But the internal congregation is opposing use of that space for a day shelter purpose. Adjacent neighbors also have expressed concerns.

“But that congregation needs to work through that,” McBride said Monday. “And so we thought they were really aligned with our mission. And it just turns out that they’re not there yet. And that’s OK.”

The collaborative faith-based team is still seeking a location to offer a safe, welcoming space for individuals living on the streets to come rest, enjoy a hot meal and take a shower. They want to be a place of respite and also one of resources, inviting providers to meet with people on site.

“[T]he church will be the church,” McBride said. “And we are called to live out the Gospel. And we don’t ask permission for that.”

Vigilant Hope’s Laura Bullock led the panelist forum Monday with Vigilant Hope’s Lawrence Palmer, Pastor Meg McBride, Living Hope Street Ministry founder Christine Perez and commissioner Jonathan Barfield. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti)

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