Wednesday, February 28, 2024

City council member fights for ‘antiquated’ policy change on housing first

Wilmington City Council member Luke Waddell addresses his opposition to a housing-first policy, instead preferring to spend federal funds to address the “root” cause of homelessness, such as substance abuse disorder and mental health issues.

WILMINGTON — City council recently approved additional federal funds for the creation of more permanent supportive housing, a top priority for nonprofits working with those experiencing homelessness. 

However, one city council member voted against it Tuesday. Luke Waddell told Port City Daily housing first — providing a permanent shelter for the chronically homeless, despite any substance abuse or mental health disorder — is an “antiquated” ideology.

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

“It’s been around for a long time and heavily subscribed to and bought into by a lot of folks,” he said. “But I think it’s important for policy makers, the City of Wilmington, the county, and even at the state and federal level, to take a look at these modalities and what works and put our best foot forward to try and make the community better.”

Waddell first expressed his opposition to the housing-first mindset at the March 7 city council meeting when Suzanne Rogers, the city’s community development and housing planner, presented a broad plan for using $2.5 million of HOME American Rescue Plan Act funds. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated the money to address the needs of homelessness assistance and supportive services.

The funds come with provisions on how it can be used and which population it can serve: homeless, those at-risk of being homeless due to low income, individuals fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence or human trafficking, or veterans.

To develop a funding plan, Rogers received input from community stakeholders, including 34 agencies, businesses, churches and local government, as well as four people who experience homelessness.

She said the top priority that arose was a need for more permanent supportive housing. Her suggestion was to allocate $2.1 million toward creating up to 66 units, and using the remaining toward nonprofit capacity — for data collection and staffing — as well as to supportive services that are not already offered.

“We’re proposing to allocate $2.1 million to permanent supportive housing without any look or allocation to emergency shelter needs, rapid rehousing, more funding for those fleeing domestic violence? No mention of addressing the root causes such as substance abuse or mental health? Why?” Waddell asked at March 7’s meeting.

Rogers explained the overwhelming consensus was to invest the one-time-use money into a capital project for long-term housing support. She didn’t want to allocate funds to services that would require ongoing expenses, not knowing where future funds would come from.

While permanent supportive housing would also need consistent funding, such as maintenance and staffing, it creates a fixed asset.

“We also recognize permanent supportive housing frees up beds in the emergency shelters,” she said.

In response, Waddell asked what data there was to support that.

Based on numbers collected, Rogers pointed out there’s a 3,576-unit gap of housing needed for people who make 0% to 30% of the average median income — roughly $56,000 for New Hanover County. Permanent supportive housing allows tenants to pay 30% of their income, even if that is zero. Remaining rent is subsidized by agencies through unrestricted fundraising.

Rogers explained emergency shelters have supported about 660 people annually and are meant to be a short-term solution. Yet, there are 196 permanent supportive housing beds or units total, with a 95% occupancy rate and 92 identified chronically homeless individuals needing a place to live.

On average, there are 150 homeless on any given night in New Hanover County.

Good Shepherd executive director Katrina Knight added permanent supportive housing reduces the use of the emergency room and decreases recidivism back to the streets.

She pointed to a precipitous drop in the chronically homeless population in relation to Lakeside Reserve opening. The 40-unit permanent supportive housing complex opened in 2018, and the number of chronically homeless decreased from 81 to 32.

“It’s both a drop in the number of people needing a shelter bed but, more importantly perhaps, it’s also housing a number of people who would never entertain shelter and would otherwise remain sleeping on our streets, in the woods, and in encampments around our city,” Knight said. “Moving them to housing is a win for us all.”

Waddell said he’d rather see funds used to support “root causes” of homelessness, namely substance abuse disorder and mental health issues.

“My main problem stems from the fact that permanent supportive housing doesn’t require people to address or treat mental health and/or — often it’s ‘and’ and not ‘or’ — substance abuse,” Waddell told PCD. “It’s a real disservice to folks suffering.”

According to Waddell, the U.S. is one of the only developed countries in the world that labels people suffering from substance abuse disorder as “victims.”

Some Asian countries, for example, mandate the death penalty for drug traffickers; anyone with a positive drug test is automatically sentenced to one year in prison, according to The Washington Post’s The Fix fact checker.

“We look at someone who’s sick with a substance abuse issue, killing themselves slowly, sometimes quickly, and label them a victim,” he said. “Then since they’re a victim, everything must be given to them, and nothing can be asked of them.”

Waddell views permanent supportive housing as a “blanket hand out.”

“While they continue to spiral down the rabbit hole of substance use or mental health issues, again, likely both,” he said.

Instead, he’d like to see funding for sufficient short-term shelter, increased access to mental health and substance use facilities, enforcement of public ordinances and “open-air drug use,” as well as limited subsidized housing for people who earn it through progress on a “personalized path toward recovery.”

READ MORE: Elected officials push for solutions to ‘open-air drug markets’ in opioid settlement plan

According to a 2019 report from the University of California Los Angeles analyzing data from 64,000 surveys, 75% of the unsheltered homeless have substance-abuse disorders, 78% have mental health disorders, and 84% have physical health conditions.

Knight said based on her research and support from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, substance abuse is not the primary cause of homelessness; a mismatch between a person’s income and the expense of housing is.

During the March 21 council meeting, member Kevin Spears asked Rogers what she would consider the cause of homelessness.

“I’m asking because when a lot of people look at what contributes to homelessness, they think substance abuse or irresponsibility, but we don’t want to paint that picture to the audience,” he said. “We want to be supportive of people and provide the assistance we can.”

Rogers answered it is “as unique as individuals,” not easily rectified with a one-size fits-all solution.  

“Homeless people are like everyone else,” she said. “We all have difficult challenges and circumstances, sometimes they’re resolved with little support, sometimes family support, sometimes more intervention is needed.”

The city will not solve the homelessness problem with the $2.5 million, Rogers pointed out to council.

“The financing is complicated,” council member Charlie Rivenbark said at Tuesday’s council meeting, “with lots of strings attached.”

Rivenbark was referring to the specific uses the money can be allocated to, which include production or preservation of affordable housing, tenant-based rental assistance, supportive services and purchase or development of non-congregate shelters. Also HUD must approve the city’s plan before releasing the funds.

Rivenbark is part of the Cape Fear Council of Governments and has participated in the Cape Fear Continuum of Care’s point-in-time count, an annual headcount of unsheltered individuals held one night every January. He called the numbers “fluid.”

“It’s a crapshoot when we’re out here talking about these numbers,” he said. “The numbers we’re helping, it needs to be 10 times that, or 20 times that. It’s a money thing and finding the facilities to put these [services] in.”

Waddell, seemingly alone among council in his convictions, said he supports a treatment-first model. He recommended more funding to programs such as the Getting Home initiative, a city and county joint program that pairs social workers with law enforcement to connect individuals to the resources they need on a case-by-case basis.

Those in permanent supportive housing are assigned case management workers who spend time one-on-one with connecting them to necessary providers.

Waddell impressed upon Rogers to at least consider a community setting for permanent supportive housing — in one centralized location— as opposed to scattered units throughout the county.

“Effectively you’ve taken someone suffering from mental illness or substance use disorder and sticking them in an apartment somewhere and send case management to check on them occasionally, and that doesn’t work,” Waddell said of the scattered approach. “Research has shown they’re better off, healthier and live longer on the streets than in scattered sites for permanent supportive housing because they’re isolated.”

Research from the Journal of Behavioral Services and Research noted scattered supportive housing can lead to isolation and difficulty in providing consolidated resources to clients; however, the same article pointed to the “normalizing” effect of scattered housing, helping people grow into a “sense of responsibility and stability.”

Waddell believes it’s a more compassionate approach to focus on treatment first rather than housing.

“I’m going to continue to fight against progressive policy failures like housing first,” Waddell told PCD. “I think there is a better alternative, a nuanced alternative that addresses dignity and humanity, at the root causes.”

Tips or comments? Email

Want to read more from PCD? Subscribe now and then sign up for our morning newsletter, Wilmington Wire, and get the headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.

Related Articles