[Update: Both the county and city signed off on the program.]
NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A need to address the growing unsheltered population in the area could receive resources from two local government agencies. Next week, both the City of Wilmington council members and the New Hanover Board of Commissioners will vote on a pilot program, intended to offer a holistic approach to homelessness.
Pitched as “Getting Home Street Outreach Program,” the initiative will provide resources in mental health, substance use disorders, employment, housing, medical and dental care, among other needs. It would include a street team of four social workers, accompanied by police officers, to help those who want it.
“The focus is not upon treatment but upon preparing the unsheltered for housing and moving out of an ‘unsheltered’ category,” according to an email exchange between NHC assistant county manager Tufanna Bradley and Meg McBride of Hope Recovery Church and Hope Recuperative Care, a community agency that works with unsheltered populations.
“I think the ultimate goal should always be housing,” said McBride, also a SOAR caseworker and Tri-County Homeless Interagency Council (TRI-HIC) board member. “But the real heart of this level of work is trying to put a few things together in order to move a client in a positive direction. Some days that could be getting them hot food and just listening or driving down to DSS and getting them registered for food stamps. … A lot of this job is just encouraging people.”
Bradley indicated Wilmington Downtown Inc.’s Street Outreach Specialist Pilot Project, led by Jack Morris, would be able to provide input. Morris, a social worker, has been working for a year with unsheltered individuals, offering assistance for wraparound services that could enhance quality of life.
In October 2021, WDI commissioned Block by Block to survey downtown, which reported a homeless population of about 30 people. Yet, Morris told Port City Daily in January the number is likely much broader since some people are transient and others are in and out of short-term housing.
The 2022 Point in Time from the Cape Fear Council of Governments shows there are 347 homeless people across the entire county, up from 301 in 2021.
Getting Home will include pairing Wilmington police officers with four social workers to address areas within the city limits of Wilmington. One that has dominated conversation is the downtown library.
Last spring, the county considered an ordinance that would prevent unsheltered populations from camping out on county-owned property and implementing a $50 civil penalty on trespassers. Essentially, neither action went into effect, after the county received decries in a letter signed by area nonprofits — Good Shepherd Center, Family Promise, Salvation Army, A Safe Place and Tri-HIC.
Tri-HIC Continuum of Care board chair Michele Bennett explained to Port City Daily back then that the move could prevent people who are homeless from accessing free Wi-Fi, reaching a social worker in the building or obtaining library resources.
The ordinance was suggested as a response to complaints from the community and area leaders. At the time, commissioner vice chair Deb Hays mentioned two Municipal Service District workers were transported to the hospital after being attacked by homeless people.
In July, a letter from a legal assistant in the district attorney’s office expressed concerns with public urination and adults sleeping in stairwells of the parking deck next to the library. Caroline Scorza said she had to step over people frequently on her walk to work.
“Today there was a large pile of (I believe) human feces at the bottom of the stairs,” she wrote to the county’s chief facilities officer, Sara Warmuth. “When I leave work in the afternoon, there is always a group of people hanging out on the benches by the Story Park, smoking pot and yelling obscenities. I no longer use the book return by the Library’s main entrance in the morning because of all the people sleeping in front of it (who often wake up volatile and screaming). Most of my colleagues avoid using the parking deck for these reasons.”
Last month, the county revealed in a statement it was working toward addressing issues after a homeless man was arrested for alleged sexual assault, which the sheriff’s office reported took place at the library near the parking deck.
County began researching ways to “identify the needs” and “determine the best type of partnership” in April, county spokesperson Jessica Loeper confirmed.
According to New Hanover County Department of Health and Human Services director Donna Fayko, the county looked at street outreach programs like WDI, but also in other cities that had positive outcomes, including Wichita, Kansas, Austin, Texas, and Bloomington, Indiana.
“[Getting Home] would balance both compassion and accountability, and ensure the right allocation of resources could be made for it to be successful,” Loeper said.
The initiative is being funded through the county with monies received by the American Rescue Plan Act. It will cost $460,563 to cover the first nine months; however, it will not include cleanup. New Hanover will pick up those costs through contracted services or its own departments.
A county spokesperson didn’t specify encampments or highly populated areas within city limits that need focus.
“All of those details will be worked through as the program gets up and running,” Loeper said. “It will be in areas where the homeless gather, but the details of what that looks like and the timing all have to be determined based on what the needs are.”
The goal is to keep the program in place through December 2024. Cumulatively, the county would spend $1,181,688, to cover salary and benefits for four social workers and one supervisor, two vehicles, cleanup services of area camps, and other miscellaneous items.
The city’s contribution will cover police officers, including salaries, benefits, and insurance.
“No additional funding is required because the officer would already be on duty,” city spokesperson Dylan Lee said. “WPD is assigning existing resources to the program.”
Getting Home will be a collaborative effort between the county, city, department of health and human services, and other community organizations. If approved, it is slated to begin Oct. 1 with staffing completed by Nov. 1.
Though ARPA funding is applicable only through 2024, Getting Home has potential to extend beyond that timeframe. Loeper confirmed the county will monitor the program continuously to understand needs for adjustments.
For example, commissioners may reconsider in the future amending New Hanover County Code Chapter 38. The ordinance would prohibit “overnight sleeping on county property and to provide for the disposal of items left unattended.”
“The commissioners had some discussions about it at [a recent] agenda review and the majority sentiment was that it should not be considered right now,” Loeper said, “but instead give the program time to take root and see if a difference is made.”
The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners meet Monday, 9 a.m., and the City of Wilmington meets Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.
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