WILMINGTON—Last fall, as Randy Evans of Walking Tall Wilmington was setting up morning breakfast with some of his unsheltered friends at the downtown Riverwalk Visitor’s Information Center — also referred to as “the gazebo” — Jamie Lee Curtis stopped by for a chat. She was in town filming “Halloween Kills,” and mentioned walking by the gazebo every morning, and seeing him share a meal with others.
She took a picture with Evans and posted it to her social media, writing “Food is love. Friendship is love. . . Just one human being, feeding another. Perfect.”
The post generated a lot of traction. It helped Walking Tall fund more meals and highlighted downtown Wilmington’s Riverwalk.
Fast forward one year later, and the gazebo, located at the foot of Market and Water streets, is now wrapped in fencing as it undergoes $300,000 in renovations from the City of Wilmington.
On Sept. 14 deputy city manager Thom Moton presented plans to council to raze half of the ‘80s-era visitor’s center, leaving only the bathroom portion, to open up the viewshed of the Cape Fear River. Also installed will be new light fixtures that cure blind spots and shadows, plus cameras to be manned by either the Wilmington Police Department or Wilmington Downtown Inc. ambassadors, or a combination of both.
Security has become a hot topic among downtown visitors, citizens and business owners when talking about the gazebo. According to the city, police have received complaints at least once a month for illicit behaviors taking place in the vicinity.
“However, not every encounter results in a report or a call to 911,” according to the city’s spokesperson, Jennifer Dandron. “WPD and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office have a joint downtown taskforce, so sometimes officers will already be in the area when an issue arises and are able to de-escalate the situation without generating a report or resulting in an arrest/citation.”
Between October 2019 and 2020, police have cited 19 charges near the center, consisting of larceny, damage to personal property, disorderly conduct and indecent exposure, among other activities. It can’t be confirmed all charges are directly associated with the gazebo, according to an email chain between police planner Barry Coburn and Dylan Lee, who works in communications in the city manager’s office.
“Don’t know if all of these involve the homeless exactly, plus this is within the general area of the shelter [so] it is difficult to say all occurred precisely at the shelter,” Coburn wrote.
“Public urination is one,” Evans confirmed during an interview. “The gazebo gave me access to the unsheltered community; it was the primer to gain their trust and hear their stories. But if someone is breaking the law, it’s a hard stop.”
Evans started Walking Tall in 2015. One day he showed up to the gazebo with donuts and coffee after seeing displaced people congregating there. He struck up a conversation and then showed back up the next day … and the next … and every day since.
Evans already had experience working with people in extreme poverty from his stint at the Hope Center — a day center located in the bottom of a church on 5th Avenue, which has since shuttered.
The Hope Center helped unsheltered people by providing them lockers during the day, so their personal items didn’t have to be carried around. It employed people as hammock makers for $15 an hour and helped them build résumés. It was a place 150 unsheltered community members met to eat together, get haircuts, and safely socialize.
“I used to say, ‘I want to work myself out of a job,’” Evans detailed, “but now I know I’m not going to eradicate poverty. I’m just not — on any level. No one is. It’s been with us since the beginning of time. Now, my goal is to meet these people where they are in life, and show them dignity and try to help them in a holistic way.”
Evans’ nonprofit goes beyond sharing meals; it provides supplies, like blankets, jackets, clothing, toiletries, and now showers from a newly gifted mobile shower unit. During Covid-19 he upped the meals that he and volunteers make out of a church kitchen before delivering downtown. He used to provide breakfasts and lunches three days a week but since March has been doing five. He also provided masks, sanitizer and helped install hand-washing stations downtown in the spring, amid the initial rise in numbers from novel coronavirus.
“I did an event with NC Vote Now and got a lot of people registered,” he said of the recent election. “On voting day, we drove people to the polls.”
A pastor for Jordan’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Burgaw, Evans will be serving Thanksgiving dinner at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. He also hosts a weekly feast congregation at St. Paul’s on Saturday — a church service Evans’ started specifically for unsheltered individuals in poverty.
Creating spaces that do the most good
Since the gazebo has been barricaded for renovations, Evans has moved his breakfasts and lunches not even a quarter mile up the Riverwalk, in front of the federal building steps on Water Street. He alternates days between also setting up on 3rd near the Chestnut Street library.
Evans found out about the gazebo’s renovations when Wilmington Downtown Inc.’s interim chair, Dane Scalise, called to let him know the city was correcting structural issues.
“Dane told me they were just fixing the railing, and the city didn’t want me to think they were ‘spiting me,’” Evans said.
PCD reached out to Scalise about who from the city asked him to call Evans, but Scalise did not respond.
“I actually agreed that, yes, structural changes should be made, especially with the railing,” Evans continued. “I thought to myself, OK, that should take about a week.”
A few days later when Walking Tall went to host its normal morning breakfast, volunteers called Evans saying the gazebo was wrapped in fencing and tabletops were being removed.
“That’s when I realized this was going to be a longer project,” Evans recalled.
The project is slated for completion in spring of 2022.
Evans phoned councilmembers Kevin Spears and Clifford Barnett to express his concerns. They, too, had asked Moton questions about ways to deal with the larger issue at hand when discussing renovations of the gazebo: how to help the unsheltered population.
Barnett asked if the city could look at alternative ways to handle calls and complaints they received that, perhaps, didn’t involve law enforcement. “What are the odds of having a social worker down there to help assuage those behaviors?” he questioned.
Moton responded he was looking at funds the city manager’s office allocates to civic groups to properly address the needs. “And we believe some of that could fund social workers and street outreach,” Moton added.
Spears went one step further. “Are we looking to partner with nonprofits to help people who are disruptive to visitors?”
“Walking Tall Ministries and Continuum of Care through the Cape Fear Council of Government task force,” Moton responded. Moton also serves on the Continuum of Care board.
It came as news to Evans, who said he had never met with anyone about a potential partnership.
“I told Kevin, ‘The gazebo is an area where we can do the most good,” Evans recalled. “If you tear this down, the people are going to go somewhere else — and we are going to follow them. So are you going to keep tearing down places across the city wherever we are? Or do you want to create a space to do the most good?’”
In the presentation, Moton specified a need to rectify the gazebo as a place of loitering.
“As a team, when we look at what’s happening at the businesses, and we focus on behaviors that matter about socio-economic statuses of people at the Riverfront, we do believe there are certain conditions that create an ecosystem that attracts that behavior: places to congregate and sit for extended periods of time,” he said. “[The visitor’s center] was intended to be transactional. It instead becomes a place of encampment.”
“It’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” councilmember Charlie Rivenbark said during the presentation’s question-and-answer portion.
He compared Wilmington’s riverfront to beach cities that struggle with attracting tourism.
“I don’t think they would allow in their city what we allow,” Rivenbark said, “like the pictures Mr. Shackleford sent us of someone passed out on a sidewalk. We’re struggling to get our tourism back up, and you see people spending money at restaurants, but then someone’s passed out — we can’t have that. And I don’t know what the solution is. I just know there’s a problem. That has to be addressed along with everything else.”
Almost directly in front of the visitor’s center is Michael’s on the Waterfront. The new restaurant opened in the midst of Covid-19 and has seen an upswing in clientele since the first phase of the visitor’s center renovation began.
“The construction on the gazebo has had a positive effect on Michael’s,” owner Michael Lavigna said. “We have seen a rise in walk-in traffic, as people have been more willing to linger near Water Street and the front of our restaurant because of the fence.”
“Words create worlds”
The high-profile area of the Riverwalk has been through its fair share of general wear and tear over three decades. Originally constructed in the mid-’80s, the center has served as a welcoming spot for tourists and locals, with restrooms, tables and seating available for public use.
Moton told council during the presentation the visitor’s center had reached “functional obsolescence.”
It was built when the Wilmington population tipped 55,000; today, it’s reached 123,000. The gazebo’s increased use, and the numerous storms and environmental impacts the river has had on the structure, has taken its toll.
“It’s time to incorporate design principals that strengthen the sense of safety and provide more security,” Moton explained on Sept. 14.
In addition to installing cameras and lighting, the new structure will be painted to match the historic district, and include improved landscaping and pedestrian art and/or historic signage. Moton floated the idea of gates being installed to close off the center at night, as a means to keep people from sleeping there.
“It’s not lost on me the amount of people who have complained about us being at the gazebo,” Evans clarified. “I’ve received those complaints, too — I’ve also received threats from downtown business owners for doing what I do. But what gets me is the language of calling these people ‘a public safety matter.’”
Evans is referring to another part of Moton’s presentation, where he noted, “Residents and business owners are saying, ‘I don’t want to call the police again — I want you, the city, to do something about these recurring public safety complaints.’”
“It’s not illegal to be poor,” Evans said. “Words create worlds. We have power to affect people, and using terms like ‘public safety issue’ when describing a group of people can project to some that being in poverty is a crime. That seems to be the projection to my community.”
It’s a tough spot for the city to be in: to balance the needs of the Riverwalk as a structure, which in turn helps drive tourism; to keep citizens safe; to keep business owners happy; and to keep in mind the aftereffects all these decisions have — in this case on the unsheltered community.
This balancing act isn’t lost on the city, either. Dandron responded on Moton’s and the city’s behalf that no one is in violation of the law for having little to no income or a home. She also explained that was not the message the city was trying to convey.
“The city would like to make clear it is not a crime to be unhoused or spend time on the Riverwalk,” she wrote in an email, “and no laws prevent someone from being in a public space due to housing status. However, there are ordinances relating to blocking sidewalks, littering, and obeying park hours, in addition to laws against criminal behaviors.”
Evans agrees anyone breaking the law should be held accountable, but he also thinks the issues with the displaced community go beyond unlawfulness. He interprets “perception” and tourism as seemingly more concerning.
“The city doesn’t want this to be perceived as having riff-raff downtown,” Evans said. “Yet, you can go downtown after the bars let out any weekend night and see public urination, too.”
Boundaries, not barriers
According to Evans, city leaders asked to meet with him via Zoom a few weeks after Moton’s presentation, and after Evans spoke with councilmembers Spears and Barnett. In the meeting, the officials reapproached the idea of opening another day center. While Evans isn’t opposed to a day center, he is opposed to one with pre-entry stipulations.
“People often call me the pastor of last resort because I create space for people who have been banned everywhere else,” he said. “I’d want the same from a day center: an opportunity to help everyone, no matter what.”
Evans runs Walking Tall on private donations only and grants that don’t come from any government funding. He didn’t apply for funds provided by the CARES Act in the midst of the pandemic because he doesn’t agree with high barriers that sometimes come with federal money (i.e. required drug testing or refusing help to folks who have violent felonies).
“The problem with these grants is, you tend to have vacuums where you’re sucking people in, throwing them around, spitting them out and sucking them in again,” Evans said.
He pointed to the debacle with Hurricane Florence as an event that shook his faith, specifically with local shelters. Many people he drove to shelters ahead of the storm were denied entry because they didn’t have an ID. Evans took matters into his own hands and put up 35 people in his home.
In 2019 N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein recognized Evans’ efforts with the Dogwood Award, given to community leaders who vow to keep people safe, happy and healthy.
When Hurricane Dorian rolled around, Evans said he was impressed with how New Hanover County learned from the previous storm and accepted the homeless community in the shelters.
“They tried to be better about lowering those barriers,” he said. “And it was great. I give them credit where it’s due. I don’t want barriers; I want boundaries — meaning we have a mutual understanding with the people we serve. I’m open to partnerships but only with the right people.”
Even as city leaders continued bringing up the idea of opening another day center and who to work with — of whom Evans suggested Vigilant Hope, Med North and Physician’s Alliance — Evans said he remains weary. Mainly, he points to having spent years building trust with a community of people who don’t easily open themselves to more vulnerability.
“We can’t look at a day center as a means to an end,” Evans said. “Poverty isn’t going away. We need to incorporate these people into the community. They have dreams and aspirations. They’re more than addiction and mental illness. Our goals at Walking Tall are to create space and access to feel loved and cared for and not alone, to build self-respect. Identity is who you are; dignity is what you’re worth. How can you create worth if you don’t know who you are? We create ways for people to learn who they are and discover their worth. And that’s more than a can of high-sodium soup or busted up garbanzo beans that have been in someone’s pantry for five years. That’s more than hand-me-down pants and a handful of change.”
Moton noted in his presentation it takes more than just a city to address these issues — none of which are quick fixes. “The needs are pretty substantial,” he said. “Homelessness equals mental health, social services, housing. It’s more than the city — it’s everyone coming together.”
It appears Moton is moving forward on that concept. In an email to the mayor and councilmembers on Nov. 18, he informed them the Tri-County Continuum of Care, which makes up an alliance of service providers, local government agencies and other public interests, created a new governance system to serve the unsheltered population. The continuum provides around $1 million in federal, state, and local funds for emergency services and housing to those in need. He also noted he wanted to obtain data to better understand this population in Wilmington.
Councilmember Rivenbark asked to be kept abreast of Moton’s progress in a response. “Too many times the meetings take place and all the boxes get checked, and it doesn’t translate to relief or problem-solving on the street level,” he wrote. “I think some sort of day/night care program should be at the top of their to-do list.”
Evans suggests the best way for city council — and all politicians, for that matter — to understand this community is to actually reach out and ask what they need. To stop assuming.
“They can start with, ‘What do you like about Wilmington and what keeps you here?’” he said. “Or, ‘How can you contribute to make it better?’”
The approach can be as simple as sharing a meal and conversation, much like Evans did for the first time at the gazebo years ago.
“The Riverwalk is supposed to be for everyone, so they have said,” Evans noted. “Well, right now, it doesn’t feel welcoming to my community.”
Have ideas, tips, comments and/or grumbles? Email Shea Carver at email@example.com