Monday, July 15, 2024

‘Community’s asking for it’: City ordinance floated as way to combat homelessness downtown

Downtown business owners convene at Front Street Brewery Wednesday for a joint meeting with Wilmington Police Department to discuss public safety. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — Downtown has been a hub for the transient homeless population for years but some business owners are now speaking out as they say issues have worsened. One city council member offered a solution that could deter the homeless population from camping out near their businesses.

READ MORE: ‘No trespassing’ enforcement at MLK, Kerr Avenue homeless encampment begins next week

ALSO: County, WDI to train social workers as part of new initiative to help unsheltered population

Council member Luke Waddell attended a joint Wilmington Downtown Inc. and Wilmington Police Department meeting Wednesday. The conversation focused on public safety but quickly segued into concerns surrounding the unhoused. Around 25 business owners were in attendance, some expressing a desire for added patrols, particularly late at night or during shift changes, due to “nuisances” arising from excessive loitering, including litter, public urination, and individuals passed out in alleys. 

Waddell addressed the crowd, announcing he plans to bring up a proposal in the new year to pass an ordinance that mirrors New Hanover County’s.  

“The county had an issue, you know, about about a year and a half ago around the library, they passed an ordinance — public camping ordinance,” he said. “A lot of other municipalities and counties around the country are starting to do the same. The city does not currently have one. Personally, I think that’s a problem.”

New Hanover County Commissioners in February approved 4-1 (Jonathan Barfield dissented) an update to chapter 38 of its ordinances, which 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.

The city owns the sidewalks, alleys and some parking decks downtown, where some businesses said incidents have been taking place.

Brian Westyle, co-owner of Rebellion and Fox’s Hole in the Wall, joked he’s a “big guy” and not fearful for himself but worries for his staff. Rebellion is adjacent to Benton Court Alley, a specific location WPD said had repeated issues.

“If I have a girl, five-foot two, if she goes out, the guy screams in her face; she goes inside and she’s rattled for the rest of the day,” Westyle said. “We’ve actually in the last couple of years reduced our hours, in part because of our concerns and for our staff leaving because [the homeless people] are just unpredictable. We don’t know what we’re going to get.”

Jeff Duckworth, owner of PinPoint restaurant on Market Street across from the parking deck, favored the ordinance: “There really aren’t laws in place that make sense.”

Waddell told Port City Daily after the meeting he didn’t intend to speak or mention his idea but felt compelled after hearing feedback from the business community.

“It’s high time,” he told PCD. “And people expect leaders to act. I don’t know if this ordinance will go through, but I intend to bring it forward. The community’s asking for it.”

Council member Kevin Spears told PCD he would not support the ordinance banning people from camping on public property if Waddell brought it up. Newly elected council members David Joyner and Salette Andrews — to be sworn in December — both said they would need more information before commenting. Clifford Barnett and Charlie Rivenbark did not respond by press. 

Waddell has been openly against a housing-first approach, typically touted by nonprofits who work in the homeless sector. He said the city has made investments in programs addressing mental health and substance abuse, which he said are the root causes of homelessness.

“I don’t believe a compassionate approach is to ignore it and let people defecate and urinate and use drugs openly in our streets,” Waddell told PCD. “You have to act on these items when you see them or it’s gonna blow out of control.”

When Port City Daily asked the council member where the homeless will go, considering the shelters are full and people have already been displaced from the downtown library and trespassed from other encampments, he stated there were “many options.”

“[F]or those who want help, but it is not unreasonable to ask that our sidewalks are passable and that public parks and parking garages and all public areas are safe, clean and accessible,” he said.

Tom Harris, owner of Front Street Brewery where Wednesday’s meeting convened, told PCD he would “110%” back Waddell’s idea.

“There needs to be some common sense things on the books,” he told PCD. “The county took a common sense approach and it’s time for the city to step up.”

Harris said he spends a lot of time in Seattle and doesn’t want Wilmington to end up similarly “overrun with homeless people.”

While he said the homeless population does impact his business some, he’s more concerned for downtown and the community overall.

“We need to nip it in the bud,” he said. 

Justin Smith, owner of four downtown businesses, told PCD there have always been issues with homeless populations downtown. He’s owned multiple locations in the vicinity since the mid ‘90s. Yet, Smith associates severe mental health or drug issues with only a small portion of homeless individuals.

“It seems these are the people that we are having a hard time figuring out how to handle,” he said. “I understand this is a complex issue. All enforcement and systems in place do not feel they are supported by rules or law and therefore we’re living in a gray area and these frequent offenders are allowed to roam downtown day after day.”

Smith said he would support the enforcement of disruptive behavior or aggressive panhandling but otherwise encouraged a compassionate, humane approach. 

Westyle reported conditions are progressively getting worse, especially since the homeless population was cleared out of the encampment at Kerr Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway.

He said the numbers of unhoused hanging out at the parking lot at Second and Dock streets, in particular, have increased. He’s worried for his younger employees who get off work at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. He recalled an example from two weeks ago where an individual was “out cold” near his dumpster.

“I thought he was dead,” he said. “You wake him up and he’s allowed to go on his own and the next day, he’s back there again. It’s kind of these nuisance things, I think, are the biggest part of the problem.”

WPD Captain Musacchio responded at the meeting there’s not much law enforcement can do if someone is passed out or drunk on public property. Even if an officer calls EMS, an individual can refuse to be seen.

“It seems to be getting worse, week by week,” Westyle said, asking what more can be done. 

Musacchio said the city and county’s Getting Home team is there to assist. It’s aimed at connecting the homeless population to resources in mental health, substance use disorders, employment, housing, medical and dental care, among other needs.

Hayley Jensen, owner of Beer Barrio said she doesn’t see as many issues on her property because the law firm she shares a parking lot with pays for extra police patrol.

“The presence works,” she said.

Musacchio said manpower is an issue with the department right now but offered to escort any employees to their vehicles at night if they don’t feel safe. 

“I wish we were fully staffed and could be everyone at once,” he said.

Eight officers patrol downtown per shift as part of the Downtown Task Force — a combination of officers from WPD and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. Shifts are Monday through Thursday 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. on weekends. An additional five assist with Alcohol Law Enforcement.

“What we’re here for is to try and get information because the downtown area is a partnership — a partnership with us and you,” he said. “We’re trying to work something out so this doesn’t become a problem.”

Duckworth told PCD there are people sleeping in the alley behind his business daily.

“My guys are going outside the back door and a person is literally crapping in the alley,” he said.

He asked WPD why the intoxicated individuals who are publicly urinating or defecating on public property can’t be arrested: “I’m asking because I don’t understand.”

Musacchio said it isn’t a crime for people to be on a city street; however, officers have to witness someone with an open container or committing a crime in action to make an arrest.

“Not everything is arrest-worthy,” Musacchio said.

Duckworth added the trash left behind by the homeless population, including food waste and beer bottles, is a deterrent to customers. He said it’s not infrequent but happens daily.

“These guys are literally sitting and having a tailgate in the alley and they’re all drinking, all the time,” he said at the meeting. “All of us sitting right here, that’s our front door.”

WPD’s Peter Oehl, who patrols downtown during the day, said officers do cite individuals when they see criminal activity. He recalled one particular person was cited 22 times in a public alley.

“He was drinking, I charged him. Littering, I charged him. He curses at me, I charged him,” he said. “I let them know.”

He also said he’s charged people for laying down on the city benches, which is illegal.

That’s just the “low-hanging fruit” though, Oehl said. 

“Another thing I stress is calling 911 to let us know because if we don’t know then we don’t think we have a problem,” he added.

The more people that call, the more it’s tracked to see where problem areas are that can be addressed, he added. Musacchio added officers can enforce trespassing if business owners contact them.

Wilmington Downtown Inc. vice president Christina Haley told the group she sent Waddell an example of an ordinance from Cincinnati that was shared by WDI’s Block by Block management program. It would allow officers to access private property without having to first contact the owners.

Haley iterated to business owners if they have trash problems to call WDI’s ambassadors who perform cleaning services, biohazard removals. She added for owners who don’t want to involve police, there is the street outreach coordinator for WDI, Jack Morris, who fosters relationships with the homeless population and connects services.

“That individual right there is probably one of the most compassionate individuals you will ever meet and he has found a way, I don’t know how he does it, but he’s found a way to connect each and every person that has been here to help them try and move on,” Haley said. “They’re paid by your tax dollars, so please use our service as much as you can.”

Morris was hired in 2021 as the first full-time social worker downtown to interact with the homeless population and connect with appropriate resources. In 2023, Morris made 681 business contacts to assist with the homeless population and more than 4,000 outreach referrals.

Haley noted the new downtown day shelter that opened at First Baptist Church has helped as a refuge for some individuals but they are only open Monday and Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“We have trouble meeting the line where approaching the subject with compassion but also working in regards to cultivating a vibrant business community and this is one way that could help that situation, a little bit,” she said.

Haley encouraged business owners to donate to the cause to help keep the shelters doors open.

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