Tuesday, April 16, 2024

County drops homeless ordinance days after overdose in downtown library

Members of the Homeless Interagency Council signed a letter to commissioners opposing proposed regulations to cite homeless people

County staff proposed an ordinance to prevent homeless people from sleeping at Third, Grace, and Chestnut streets. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Under mounting pressure from the community and a regional board with expertise in unsheltered populations, several commissioners had a change of heart on proposed rules intended to kick the homeless community and their belongings off county-owned properties.

Commissioners Julia Olson-Boseman and Bill Rivenbark joined Jonathan Barfield in voting to kill the ordinance proposed by staff, who were concerned about the gathering of homeless people at Third, Grace, and Chestnut streets and the behavior it attracts. Just two days before Monday’s decision, a homeless person overdosed and died in the bathroom of the downtown library on Third, shuttering the building for the day.

PREVIOUSLY: Commissioners strengthen ordinance to deter homeless from camping out on county property

Library staff performed chest compressions and EMS responded, but the person did not survive, according to emails obtained by Port City Daily, which the commissioners were copied on. The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson confirmed the report listed the deceased as having been homeless.

Despite concerns raised by their staff about public urination, alleged assaults and other disruptions, commissioners were sympathetic to the unsheltered population having nowhere to go. Opponents were concerned the ordinance presented more obstacles than resolutions. (The recent overdose was not brought up during Monday’s meeting.)

“I don’t think we should do this without a solution,” Olson-Boseman said, after rejecting a motion to table the legislation in favor of scrapping it completely. She said she was wrong the first time she voted for the ordinance in March.

“I can’t do this to people,” the chairwoman continued. “I just can’t do this to people.”

New Hanover County leaders received backlash for considering the ordinance in recent weeks. Members of the Cape Fear Council of Government’s Homeless Interagency Council (Tri-HIC), the HUD designated entity for the tri-county region, drafted a letter to the officials in resistance. Signees included Good Shepherd Center assistant director Kyle Abrams, Family Promise director Anne Best, the life skills director at Salvation Army Drew Huver and A Safe Place program director Dawn Ferrer.

“We worry that the proposed amendment does not alleviate the problem, but merely shifts the problem to other areas, like city property or even privately owned residential property,” the letter states. “The amendment also creates the potential to limit access to vital county resources like the public library or the department of social services on which unsheltered persons rely.”

Tri-HIC chair and housing specialist Michele Bennett explained on a call that trespassing citations come with a ban prohibiting that person from returning to the location again, regardless of the time of day. She said that would block people who are homeless from accessing free Wi-Fi, reaching the social worker in the building or obtaining other resources at the library.

The board’s executive committee called homelessness a “complicated issue that we believe cannot be solved without additional time, evidence-based practices and expanded housing options.” It requested data on the progress of the library-based social worker and invited the commissioners to participate in a summit to pinpoint solutions.

“I think that not having the amendment to the ordinance is great, but I also think there is still a lot of education that needs to occur and some discussions that also needs to occur, not just between the elected officials and members of Tri-HIC but other service providers,” Bennett said after the decision.

The proposed ordinance would have given law enforcement the authority to cite people who sleep or camp out on county-owned property through the night hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. The ordinance was specifically targeting the downtown library block, which has become a “respite” for the unsheltered population, according to county staff. Belongings are often found scattered throughout the site, sometimes quickly after a clean-up, including hazards like needles. The ordinance would subject those items to disposal after two hours unattended.

“This ordinance will aid the county in keeping its properties safe, properly maintained, and attractive should other efforts fail,” staff wrote in a memo.

Commissioner Barfield made a motion to deny the proposal. Last month, he was the sole “nay” vote in the first reading of the ordinance. Without a unanimous decision, the board was then required to hold this second reading. The rest of the commissioners agreed during the first meeting to strike a $50 penalty, should the ordinance pass, recognizing that it made little sense to fine people who can’t afford a place to live.

Barfield stressed that Salvation Army will leave a void when it relocates its shelter and homeless people who stay downtown will have nowhere else to go. Salvation Army is building its new campus off Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, near Creekwood.

According to Tri-HIC’s inventory, as of Tuesday morning, Salvation Army had the only open shelter beds in the area, with four male and three female vacancies. No other local organizations reported any capacity. Continuum of Care director Judy Herring said the Salvation Army is still dealing with staffing shortages and hasn’t returned to pre-Covid levels of operating.

“It’s so important that we put ourselves in other shoes sometimes,” Barfield said. “But you can’t know where I’ve walked unless you’ve been where I’ve been. It’s a statement that often people say, and it’s important that we can have the ability to empathize but also to understand people’s plates.”

Commissioner Rob Zapple said he hears the chronically homeless who congregate in the county’s spaces are declining help when Wilmington Downtown, Inc. or other agencies reach out.

“I’ll never use hyperbole to say that everyone downtown has refused services,” Barfield responded. “I would never make that broad of a statement.”

Zapple challenged Barfield to explain how law enforcement would enforce rules without the ordinance as a tool, to which Barfield said the sheriff’s deputy stationed at the downtown library should know how to handle situations.

Vice-chair Deb Hays stood by the stance she expressed at the March meeting. She said the county needs to clear the area of public health hazards or intimidation for residents who use the library as a resource, while still connecting the homeless community to needed services, like wet shelters that accept those dealing with alcoholism.

Zapple proposed the board table the ordinance until it receives answers to its problems, but commissioner Bill Rivenbark pointed out there was no solution presented since the last meeting.

“I just can’t vote on this. I just can’t, and I’m sorry,” Rivenbark said and apologized to staff who had worked on the ordinance.

Some commissioners appeared confused when the legislation was eventually shot down entirely by three votes rather than postponed. A county attorney clarified staff would need to bring forth a new, rewritten ordinance for similar measures to be considered again. Upon receiving clarification, Zapple ended up changing his vote to go along with the majority and downing the ordinance, but Hays stuck by her position to table it, work on the issue and then reconsider the regulations in the future.

Send tips and comments to alexandria@localdailymedia.com

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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