WILMINGTON — A new pilot program between the City of Wilmington and Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) will help downtown’s unsheltered population access social services locally. A street outreach specialist will be hired to join the Municipal Services District (MSD) Ambassador Team and will act as a liaison between downtown Wilmington’s unhoused community and organizations that can offer assistance.
Funded by the MSD — which includes properties in the downtown district paying an additional $0.07 for every $100 of property valuation — the specialist will be a trained social worker, according to WDI president and CEO Holly Childs, who is overseeing the program. “We have a lot of great resources,” Childs said at Wilmington City Council’s agenda briefing meeting Monday morning, “but many of them are outside downtown.”
The street outreach specialist will provide unsheltered individuals step-by-step guidance, including obtaining necessary entitlements, securing transportation for jobs or appointments, and ongoing case management.
“Insurance, as you know, is a huge barrier to folks getting the services they need,” Childs used as an example. “So we’ll be helping with that. We want to really understand the reason why someone’s on the street, what’s been their story to date — is there any way that we can help them to problem-solve and to really advocate for them?”
The one-year pilot program was approved mid-August by the council-appointed MSD Advisory Committee. The MSD budget increased by $118,000 — from $444,692 to $562,692 — this fiscal year, with $1,500 going toward transportation for the pilot program. The personnel budget is $78,000, with just over $63,000 going to the new social worker position.
“It comes out to $20 an hour for 40 hours a week,” Childs told Port City Daily.
The full-time position is slated to be filled by October, and immediately the social worker will begin building relationships and trust within downtown’s unsheltered community. It’s something Childs said her five-member team of ambassadors — who also received raises from $12.50 to $14 an hour in the new budget — already have begun doing, as an influx of unhoused people has congregated downtown over the last few years.
Mayor Bill Saffo said in Monday’s agenda briefing he hoped the new pilot program would fill in gaps since 2008’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness ended in 2018. While the plan helped Wilmington reach a 50% reduction in unhoused individuals locally, those numbers began increasing over the last three years. Saffo said he noticed the uptick “especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.”
The community once gathered at the downtown gazebo on Water Street until reconstruction began on that area of the Riverwalk last fall, leaving unhoused individuals dispersed into other areas. In May, Childs emailed city and county officials about an increase of people at the downtown public library on Chestnut Street.
“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,” Childs wrote.
Downtown businesses and residents have expressed concerns over the increase, too, according to Childs, whose focus as president of WDI is to promote economic development, branding, and improving the safety and cleanliness of downtown.
As part of the pilot program, WDI and the city hired a national downtown services organization, Block by Block, to do a three-day baseline study of downtown Wilmington’s unsheltered population earlier in the month. It reported 30 unsheltered individuals often meander between Market and Water streets, Grace, Third, Chestnut and Second streets. The assessment, which will be revealed in full later in the week, noted 20 individuals sleep overnight in downtown, as shelter access and availability are limited in capacity or have barriers of entry (for instance, if a shelter won’t accept someone without an ID).
Block by Block also talked to unsheltered individuals to gauge interest in receiving assistance. “People had a very positive attitude on the street and wanted to get help,” Chico Lockhart, Block by Block outreach project manager, said in a release. “And if there was someone available to help them, many of them said they would be open to that.”
Progress of the pilot program will be tracked by monthly reports, according to Childs. Then, WDI and city council will reconvene after a year to assess what worked, what didn’t, where to improve, and how to move forward.
Saffo acknowledged, while social services normally aren’t within the breadth of city government, it is a priority to keep the welfare of all its residents top-of-mind.
“I know with the 10-year plan, there was a real push to try to connect these folks with services,” the mayor said at Monday’s meeting. “We found that people had disabilities, and were able to access to the security funding and what-have-you monies that could help them get into that supportive type of housing that they need. . . . This would be ongoing. This is something that we’ve been needing for quite some time.”
“We realize that these people that have been on our streets in the city, they are our residents too,” Childs added. “They’re vulnerable, they’re highly visible, and trying to connect them to the services they might need, whatever those may be, we feel it’s incumbent upon us as an organization [to help].”
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