Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Trespassing up as homeless population scatters: Officials differ on how to proceed

WPD Sgt. Ron Evans and NHC social work supervisor Katelyn Mattox give city council an update on the Getting Home initiative. (Port City Daily/Screenshot of meeting)

WILMINGTON — Individuals experiencing homelessness keep getting pushed from location to location per new rules and ordinances implemented by local government. As a result, city officials have diverged on how to address the surging unsheltered population.

READ MORE: Tri-county homeless count 60% higher than last year, numbers of unsheltered children on the rise

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

Some council members expressed the need for more enforcement, while others blamed the government for effectively creating rules and regulations forcing the homeless population to relocate.

Meanwhile the Getting Home initiative — jointly funded by the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County — reported it’s been making progress and connecting people to resources, though the people have been a bit harder to find. 

Most recently, the vulnerable populations have set up encampments in wooded areas on private property, after new rules implemented by the county and state moved them from popular downtown spots. As a result, there has been an uptick in the number of calls for trespassing, according to Wilmington Police Department Chief Donny Williams.

Effective Monday, two WPD officers are assigned to address removing people and their belongings from privately owned land.

“Officers have a specific task to respond to some of these areas and complaints,” said WPD Sgt. Ron Evans, who oversees the officers involved with the Getting Home initiative. He was speaking during city council’s agenda briefing Monday. 

Though initially formed for downtown outreach, the Getting Home team has identified encampments such as the one off Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and Kerr Avenue.

“I can guarantee you they’re probably in every stitch of woods that’s left in New Hanover County and the City of Wilmington,” Mayor Bill Saffo said. “They’re somewhere.”

In February, the North Carolina Department of Transportation began to enforce trespassing laws at the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge on Third Street, a place frequented by homeless people. Less than a week later, the New Hanover County commissioners approved an updated ordinance banning sleeping, camping and leaving behind belongings on county-owned property, particularly aimed at the downtown county-owned library and parking deck on Second Street.

“The homeless population, Mr. Mayor, where are we pushing them?” council member Kevin Spears asked. “We, as a governing body, when we talked about redoing the [visitor’s center] on the riverfront, we knew we were going to push that population somewhere else, and they went from the Riverwalk to the library. And from the library, they’re taking over, all over Wilmington.”

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

The number of homeless individuals in the tri-county region has spiked since last year, according to Cape Fear Continuum of Care’s 2023 unofficial point-in-time count. There were 558 individuals identifying as homeless in January, compared to 347 from the prior year.

Council member Neil Anderson asked if it was easy to track where the homeless population is going; the constant moving around he likened to “whack-a-mole.”

“It does pose a challenge given the demographics. We work to get people cell phones when possible,” NHC social work supervisor Katelyn Mattox told council Monday. “One creative approach is we’re helping people sign up for an email address. They can’t lose it; they can get online at the library and it’s a way to contact them.”

Mattox added the team works with property owners who request squatters vacate their property. She said being part of the process helps them track where people are going next to keep tabs on them and ensure follow-through case management.

“The team is well aware of a lot of places encampments are starting to brew, before they’re ever visible to citizens or from the road,” Mattox said.

She noted the people gathering at Seventh and Martin streets on land owned by rail company CSX. Receiving a heads-up, the team was able to engage with people living there and get them packed up before it came to legal enforcement.

Evans noted WPD officers have received orders to take a “no-nonsense approach” to trespassing individuals who are asked to leave. He said typically property owners allow a grace period to clear the land. If officers return and people still haven’t left, enforcement will be utilized.

“If you keep coming back to where you’re told not to come, you’re going to have to take a ride with us,” he said.

Council member Luke Waddell asked if the team plans to collaborate with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office on its unincorporated areas. Mattox said it’s on the horizon, but for now, they’re sticking to the city’s jurisdiction.

More enforcement needed?

The city council’s newest member has been vocal about addressing “root issues” of homelessness over a housing-first approach. Waddell said he’d like to see more of a heavy hand when it comes to crimes.

At the meeting, he said the police department was failing on part of its mission statement for “equality and inclusion where all people are treated fairly.” Waddell indicated law enforcement doesn’t hold the homeless population or those suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues to the same standards as the average law-abiding citizen. 

“For them, public intoxication, public indecency, open container, consumption of alcohol, open-air drug use, vulgarity, aggressive panhandling are all seemingly just on the table, it’s fine,” he said, referring to homeless individuals.

Waddell, who explained he was being hyperbolic, said he gets inundated with complaint calls about the homeless population.

“The seven of us can sit up here all day long coming up with ordinances we think are gonna solve issues, but ultimately, if they’re not enforced, the seven of us are, effectively, worthless,” he said.

In contrast, Mayor Bill Saffo stood firm: “We are not going to arrest ourselves out of this issue.” He advocated for a roundtable discussion with relevant leaders — nonprofits, legal representatives, and local government — to work together toward the same goals.

ALSO: Five-part series addresses cost of homelessness, funds allocated by governments, nonprofits

“There are more resources needed but how do we attack it?” Saffo asked the council and staff. “I do not see this thing slowing down.”

Waddell suggested a solution ensuring the police department has everything it needs to function effectively and efficiently. Williams said his biggest issue is the number of bodies carrying a badge.

“I need police officers,” he said. “Part of the issue is we run three to 500 calls of service every 24 hours. … That’s the first hurdle we got to get beyond.”

WPD has four true vacancies, as another 35 or so people are either in training, on medical or family leave, on military leave or awaiting certifications. The department is budgeted for 279 positions, with 229 officers “available to work in the field” today.

It’s one of the reasons the Getting Home Street Outreach team launched six months ago to reduce the number of calls to law enforcement. Five WPD officers are specifically assigned to work alongside county social workers and establish a rapport with the homeless population to refer them to services. The team works seven days a week, 10 to 12 hour shifts.

Since January the staff members have made nearly 750 “tangible” connections, such as helping someone obtain an ID, or access meals, food stamps, clothing, the pharmacy and more, according to Mattox. They have made 424 “intangible” connections via needs assessments, references to treatment, AA or NA meetings and other medical resources.

Law enforcement escorts social workers’ safely around the city to identify underlying conditions in those that accept the help; the goal is to formulate plans to address their needs.

“Change comes at the speed of trust,” Mattox said during the meeting. “In six months of outreach and relationship building, we’ve been making progress with some of the community’s most guarded individuals.”

Since January, the Getting Home team has assisted with de-escalating potential conflicts — whether someone dealing with a mental health crisis or a conflict between multiple people — 61 times.

Evans said if the team is able to intervene, it helps the individuals avoid jail time or a citation.

Aside from de-escalation calls, WPD has assisted with 56 instances where dispatch responded to service calls involving someone experiencing homelessness.

“The team may already know the individual or can link them to services, sometimes preventing an arrest,” Evans told council.

Getting Home has helped people access shelter 94 times, 13 with a permanent place to stay.

“The numbers seem small, but these are big things to try to overcome, with the lack of affordable housing, it ends up being more difficult,” Mattox said.

The program has connected 24 people with substance abuse treatment. Evans shared the success story of one woman who WPD found living in her car after fleeing from domestic violence.

“We got her a meal while we advocated for an overnight bed at The Healing Place,” he said, which eventually led to a connection with a counselor and the lady seeking voluntary treatment.

The Healing Place recovery program opened in February and operates an emergency overnight shelter, increasing access to beds in the region. As of 2023 there were 118 emergency shelter beds in the Cape Fear region; in January, they reported a 95% occupancy rate.

Evans recalled another individual camping in the woods off Wellington Avenue told officers he lived about three hours away, but there was no space at local shelters or treatment centers. Instead, someone bought him a one-way bus ticket to Wilmington to enter treatment. 

“It didn’t work out for him, and he ended up moving into an encampment in the woods,” Evans said. “I have heard stories. Since the Healing Place opened, folks have traveled from different places of the state and the country to seek treatment there.”

Council member Clifford Barnett asked about speculations people in the community have about other towns “busing in” groups of homeless individuals into Wilmington.

“Those are rumors,” Evans said. “I don’t know that to be fact.”

Mattox explained Getting Home interacts with a range of people, locals and out-of-towners. One main catalyst remains central to their plight: losing family or a support system, she said. 

“Everybody’s been inundated with this,” Saffo said. “We need everyone at the table for a good, open discussion on how to effectively start handling these issues moving forward.”

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