Thursday, December 7, 2023

Wilmington’s homeless gather at Riverwalk gazebo: it’s not illegal, but it’s not a solution, either

The riverfront might not be everyone's idea of a good shelter to ride out Hurricane Dorian, but for some, it will have to do (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
During Hurricane Dorian, Randy Evans of Walking Tall Wilmington ventured out into the storm to feed the homeless. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

WILMINGTON — There’s a debate that has been going for years now in the City of Wilmington: what can be or should be done about (or for) the city’s homeless population, especially in Downtown and on the city’s Riverwalk.

City council and staff frequently receive emails about the issue, ranging in tone from empathetic to frustrated. Some want the city to provide additional assistance for the homeless population, others just don’t want them congregating in near their businesses.

It’s worth noting that being homeless and living in poverty are not crimes and, while there are some resources available for these residents of Wilmington, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to the situation.

Homeless population and crime

In the past few months several incidents that have occurred in Wilmington have been attributed to the homeless population, but does homelessness have anything to do with an increased amount of crime? And has the current pandemic exacerbated homelessness and criminal activities?

According to the Wilmington Police Department’s Lieutenant Stephanie Boucher (who also heads the Wilmington Downtown Taskforce), the answer is ‘no.’

Over the past couple of months, there have been a few criminal incidents attributed to the homeless population.

First, there were multiple robberies of Anne Bonny’s, a restaurant on a barge docked off of the Riverwalk on South Water Street, located near the Vistors Center. Next was the incident where a man was charged with public consumption, disorderly conduct, and indecent exposure for jumping in the Cape Fear River naked.

Both of these incidents were confirmed by Boucher to be committed by members of the homeless community. But according to Boucher, despite what she had expected due to the decrease in tourists and people in Wilmington, crimes committed by the homeless have not been on the rise.

There are also allegations that there are members of the homeless community harassing people as they walk by the area making it a less desirable spot to even visit. Boucher said there have been a few calls and emails for these types of incidents, but unless the calls come in as the event is taking place, it is hard to track down any perpetrators.

“Not everyone that is downtown causes issues and we do address issues when they come up,” Boucher said.

If and when someone does create a problem (not just the homeless) like drinking in public, the police will take action and cite them or trespass them, Boucher said, but simply hanging out under the gazebo is not a crime. Although she did admit there were ordinances the police can enforce when people are causing problems, the Wilmington Police Department is not seeing a high number of these calls, she said.

The Visitors Center

The Vistors Center in Downtown Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Courtesy City of Wilmington)

The Vistors Center on the Riverwalk serves as a popular gathering space for some of Wilmington’s homeless population which, for some business owners and residents, is a problem.

Over the past several years the city has spent over $10 million in the past few years renovating the entire Riverwalk, including the Visitors Center, which was renovated in 2017.

The property offers a variety of amenities including tables, chairs, bathrooms, power outlets, and shelter from the weather. These amenities are not only for tourists but for all residents and visitors — this includes the city’s homeless population.

Randy Evans runs the nonprofit organization Walking Tall Wilmington, an outreach group that works directly with those living in poverty.

“Walking Tall Wilmington exists to build interpersonal relationships with individuals experiencing poverty through giving full access, so that they may experience community through safe and sacred spaces of healing,” according to the group’s website. “We freely give to those living in extreme poverty not only with basic needs and supplies, but also the need of friendship. We believe that relationships with others is what will pull people out of the poverty cycle, not disability checks and steam tables. Through these relationships, we build trust, something that is often lacking when a life is stuck in poverty.”

It’s not unusual to see Evans down at the Visitors Center five days a week providing meals to the homeless. But, while many commend the work Evans is doing, others condemn his actions. There have been complaints by business owners near the gazebo that Evans’ actions have led to an increased homeless population in the area — something that is seen as bad for business — but Evans disputes that argument.

“In 2017 I started down there and brought breakfast, it was real simple. I was just trying to meet people on the streets and actually get to know people,” Evans said.

At first, there was some resistance to Evans being down at the Visitors center, he said, but, for him, it is about equality — and also legality. There are some city ordinances that would prevent someone from feeding people on a city street or right of way, but the Visitors center is a city park — and in city parks, picnics are allowed.

“There were a lot of issues with me being down there, but I was noticing, why was it okay for school groups to eat down there, what were they doing differently?” Evans said. “All they were doing was eating a meal together.”

Evans also said that while he does have more interactions with the population than most people do, he is not responsible for them, nor is he ‘their keeper’ — although some business owners have laid blame at Evans’ feet he said.

“I’ve definitely been pointed at for anything and everything that happens down at that gazebo,” Evans said.

From policing to outreach

Evans and the police have a good relationship and he is happy to have the number of interactions with police that he does. The city has installed cameras at the Visitors Center to keep an eye on things — something Evans is actually happy to have for the sake of transparency.

These cameras have helped shed a light on what is going on at the Visitors Center and help capture any potential crimes that are being committed there.

Evans and the police seem to be on the same page when it comes to crime: regardless of your income, people should be held accountable for their actions.

“The thing that I have always said about that area is that I am there maybe five hours a week … we do our best to clean up, we have relationships with two of the city workers who are amazing,” he said. “But when I walk away from that place I’m not the innkeeper of the gazebo. I’ve said it many times, that if someone is breaking the law, regardless if they are in poverty or not — call the police.”

There have been plenty of people who have asked ‘what can be done about the homeless population at the gazebo?’ The answer to that, though, isn’t as simple as some would like.

Services like homeless shelters and other housing resources are available in Wilmington, but they are not a one size fits all solution. Boucher said that she has spoken to many of the city’s homeless population who might not be comfortable or have some sort of personal reason they don’t want to go to a shelter.

Ultimately, Wilmington’s homeless situation is not something that is going away and police, as well as outreach groups, are working to ensure everyone in the city is safe and will continue to hold everyone accountable for their actions.

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