Sunday, February 25, 2024

Eden Village identifies land for pod-style campground for homeless individuals

“God pods” on the Eden Village property set up to house homeless individuals overnight. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

WILMINGTON — A local doctor and founder of a tiny home community for the homeless has set his sights on City of Wilmington-owned land for his next project, despite pushback from other organizations.

READ MORE: Tiny homes community to help unsheltered population officially opens

Tom Dalton, owner of Eden Village, is requesting the city donate a parcel of land on Marstellar Street, between 16th and 17th streets, for a pod-style temporary housing development. 

The dwellings, 28 and counting in Dalton’s possession, would offer climate-controlled shelter for unhoused individuals from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. With enough room for a twin bed, bedside table, chair and small heater, homeless individuals would be able to rent a pod for $10 a night or utilize “gift coupons” given to them or Eden Village’s team to cover the cost.

Residents of the pods will have access to social workers, medical care, financial planning, and other resources to help transition them to permanent housing, similar to the services offered to residents of Eden Village. 

Storage will be made available for residents to store their belongings during the day. There will also be communal bath houses on site for them. 

“We believe we have a good idea,” Shawn Hayes, manager of Eden Village, said on a tour of the pods with Port City Daily Thursday. “We just want to partner with others and we can help the folks that need it the most.” 

Opening in June 2023 with 31 units, Eden Village is a permanent supportive housing community based on the original development in Springfield, Missouri. Dalton went back to the same well for the new “god pod” project, as Eden Village is linked with the Christian message.

The Springfield pods fit about 50 units on an acre, which Dalton told PCD is the plan for Wilmington.

Hayes and Dalton have been searching for land for the project for several months now. Dalton told Port City Daily on Thursday the team initially identified North Carolina Department of Transportation land near the airport, but were told it would eventually be developed. Next, they tried a portion of city-owned land, around 14 acres, across the street, before focusing on Marstellar.

Dalton said he was hoping to work with the city on a land donation to avoid the zoning process associated with acquiring a property for a “pod village/campground.” 

However, not everyone working in the homelessness advocacy lane is on board with the proposal. Members of the Cape Fear Continuum of Care (CoC), a regional organization that distributes federal funds to homeless services, expressed distaste for Dalton’s location and Eden Village’s lack of formal cooperation in the CoC’s practices. 

Per the minutes obtained from the Jan. 18 CoC meeting, most people recommended the city sell the Marstellar property and look for a better location for Eden Village’s proposal; several board members thought it was more beneficial to use the money toward affordable housing.

Kyle Abrams, assistant director of the Good Shepherd Center, pointed out that the property is surrounded on three sides by a railroad and two busy streets, stating his worry over the danger people would face trying to get to this location at night. 

Dalton acknowledged this in his conversation with PCD on Thursday, saying they would need to coordinate installation of flashing lights and walkways to notify motorists. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Dalton said. “You don’t just roll in there and set up the pods and just go to town.”

Inside a “god pod” on Eden Village’s campus. Homeless individuals would be allowed to occupy the units from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

Tufanna Bradley, assistant county manager of human services at New Hanover County, asked whether any of the residents in the proposed area had been consulted. The minutes state “she felt too often neighborhoods have too many services concentrated in them and it can cause issues for the neighbors.”

The CoC also passed a resolution imploring the city, New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties to make it a standard practice for recipients of funds, both monetary and in-kind, to be required to participate in the federal Homeless Management Information System and coordinated entry. The former is a data collection system each CoC is responsible for using; the latter is centralized scoring to triage homeless individuals and connect them with the right resources. 

Eden Village does not participate in either. If the city and county agreed to the resolution’s terms, it would exclude Eden Village from their funding; the village has already received over $500,000 from both entities.  

City and county staff were asked to further explain the letter and its effect on Eden Village at Wednesday’s joint Wilmington City Council and New Hanover Commissioner meeting on homelessness. 

“I’d like to know what the problem is between the HMIS and Eden Village and why the Sam Hill a break down has come between well-meaning programs,” Commissioner Rob Zapple said at the meeting.

The meeting’s purpose was to gauge leaders’ temperature on a 29-person task force to develop regional best practices to manage homelessness alongside a hired consultant. Council and commissioners shot that idea down due to a perceived lack of clear goals and needs. The discourse over Eden Village revealed the different philosophies to tackling homelessness among the attendees.

“We’ve got folks ready to move on a [project] that the city has property for and that I intend to continue to try and advance,” council member Luke Waddell said. “This is just the kind of tribal mindset that I don’t want.” 

Thom Moton, deputy city manager, explained it was important for the CoC to track the inventory of need in order to connect those people to the resources best suited for them.

“So if Tufanna [Bradley] has been in line waiting for help for 30 days and she’s from Wilmington, and Rachel [LaCoe] just sort of happens to fall out and needs help the next day, she goes to somebody right away and [they say,] ‘Oh, we’re gonna take care of you,’ but Tufanna is still out there 30 days,” Moton said. 

He said the question might not be should a group use the same system as the CoC, but rather if they report out any information at all. 

According to Hayes, Eden Village has been providing names of its residents to the CoC to be taken off the organization’s list. He went on to explain that no Eden Village project, among several in the country, uses the HMIS system, as it doesn’t align with their month-to-month leasing options. He said their application system has been able to help people that score low in coordinated entry, yet have been on the streets for a while.

Dalton explained another complication of coordinated entry was that it puts the people in most need first, regardless of whether they will be a good citizen for the community Eden Village is trying to create.

“You’re building a village, you can have some people that are stronger than other people that they can lean on and they basically are going to live together forever and so you don’t want to just willy nilly put people through the system,” Dalton said. 

Additionally, the group is not seeking federal funding through the CoC. 

“We have a good relationship with individuals that are in the CoC and we want nothing but good relationships here,” Hayes said. “We realize that [the pods] might be a pipe dream for some individuals, they’re going to be at odds with what we’re doing. This program here, we’re not looking for any money from the COC for our housing, but, you know, we’re open to a great relationship, and we’ve started talks and we’ve had some good conversations.” 

Both council members Kevin Spears and Clifford Barnett said they were in favor of having reliable data and making sure services were doled out fairly, but did not go as far as to say they would comply with the CoC’s request. 

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield did go as far to say he wouldn’t, complimenting Eden Village for its work. 

“What I don’t want to do is create another level of bureaucracy and have one group that says we’re the clearinghouse for who gets what in our community, when again, they may not have all the best practices — someone else could come here and do something very innovative,” Barfield said. 

Commissioner Dane Scalise made similar remarks. 

“I think encouraging cultivating creativity and the private sector, as well as in the government and nonprofit sector, is something that we should be striving for,” he said. 

Hayes said Eden Village would continue to get pods shipped in while it awaits city approval for a spot to put them. According to Dalton, the village could be up and running within six months once the land is identified.

Community members of all income levels can sponsor someone’s stay; $10 that an unhoused individual might not have pays for one night. Hayes said he expects the system will work on a first-come first-serve basis, so someone would have to get on the waitlist each night, but that has not been fully determined.

“This is where the community gets a chance to basically put your money where your mouth is, right?” Hayes said. “You want to help. Let’s get involved.”


Tips or comments? Email journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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