WILMINGTON — On land owned by New Hanover County near the heart of downtown, home to the public library and parking deck between Chestnut and Grace streets, officials are brainstorming how to mitigate the congregation of people in poverty on county property.
While the site is open to the public, this area of downtown has attracted a significant homeless presence, prompting county leaders to elevate the matter to the Tri-County Homeless Interagency Council, a subset of the Cape Fear Council of Governments.
Holly Childs is the president of Wilmington Downtown Inc., the public-private partnership chartered to promote economic growth and development in the area. In April, she wrote to three elected officials on the organization’s board, two county commissioners and a city councilor, to alert them to reports of an increasing homeless presence at the library.
“I wanted to bring to your attention the fact that the homeless population concentration has increased markedly over the past couple of weeks in and around the County’s library and parking deck,” Childs wrote.
She added that conditions at the site were becoming unclean and unsafe, and requiring an extraordinary amount of resources.
“There is open drug use, squalor and litter in the area, all of which increases significantly on the days that the feedings are held and the population swells,” she wrote.
The county property in question is the site of a transformative plan, Project Grace. Portions of the block will eventually be razed to make way for a new structure — a modern and sleek joint home for a new library and the Cape Fear Museum. The parking deck will stay.
Project Grace is an attempt to revitalize Wilmington’s urban core, and to breathe life into county property that many say is in significant need of a revamp. Residential units and more private development will also be included.
While New Hanover County continues to experience robust population growth among most population segments, the 25-to-34 demographic is not expected to increase significantly over the next few years.
Childs has previously said younger populations are known to flock to urban cores. Placing a cultural beacon in the area would then likely aid in serving the Cape Fear region’s goal of bringing in more millennials. Childs did not respond to a request for comment.
Rob Zapple, a county commissioner at the receiving end of Childs’ email, forwarded the message to Chief Deputy Kenneth Sarvis of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. “Is it possible to direct some extra resources to this area to get a handle on this problem before it gets any worse?” he asked Sarvis in an email.
From there, leadership decided to bring the matter to the Council of Governments Continuum of Care committee, which meets in late May.
Tufanna Bradley, an assistant county manager, told Port City Daily the county is following up on several reports.
“We want to ensure that our community is safe, and also that we provide opportunities and help for those who need it,” Bradley wrote in an email. “We want to work toward partnership solutions, and will develop next steps and plans from those conversations.”
In response to a question about how law enforcement presence at the downtown library has evolved, a spokesperson for NHCSO said a deputy has been stationed at the library for years.
“It is a public place and people are allowed to be on the property,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “That being said if there are any issues with anyone the Deputy is there to handle it.”
Randy Evans, a Wilmington reverend and activist for unsheltered populations since 2015, said the problem stems in part from previous decisions made by local governments. Evans’ former home base for hosting meals and gatherings for unsheltered people was the gazebo at the riverwalk, stationed near the end of Market St.
Last year city council opted to raze parts of the structure and install new lighting and surveillance technology in a renovation project that will stretch into next year.
“They closed that gazebo and the community migrated up in front of the parking deck, and that’s where they’re congregating,” Evans said. “I told some people on city council that that was exactly what’s going to happen.”
Evans said traditional law-enforcement interactions with unsheltered individuals involve requests to leave the area and possibly threats of a citation. “Those individuals will eventually migrate back after a while to those same spots,” he said.
This week city council plans to distribute $883,609 in federal money “for homeless services and permanent supportive housing,” according to a council agenda item. Meanwhile, organizations like the New Hanover County-funded Good Shepherd Center and Genesis Block, as well as Edens Village, perform on-the-ground work.
In the first of two joint meetings between city and county politicians this year, services for impoverished communities was the first topic of discussion; 23% of Wilmington’s population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, higher than the national average of 13.1%.
Evans fears that the unsheltered populations he serves will again be displaced by institutional forces, just as they were by the renovations of the downtown gazebo.
“What ends up happening is those individuals migrate to other areas, and all of a sudden it creates other problems, instead of actually speaking to the poverty that exists,” he said.
In her email to elected officials, Childs noted that undesirable activity near the parking deck and library experiences an uptick when feedings occur.
“We serve four meals a week in front of there, and I ain’t leaving,” Evans said. “They’ll have to tear that place down.”
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