Wednesday, February 1, 2023

County, WDI to train social workers as part of new initiative to help unsheltered population

County staff and Wilmington Downtown Inc. are partnering for training with the county and city’s joint homelessness initiative. (Port City Daily/file)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A collaborative pilot program to address the growing unsheltered population, specifically in the downtown area, is getting a leg up from a local consultant well-versed in the topic.

The county has hired additional social workers from its department of social services. They will begin working next week with Wilmington Downtown Inc. for training before heading out into the field, according to WDI chair Deb Hays. Their sole positions are to engage with the unsheltered population downtown, rotating 10-hour shifts four days per week, between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., including weekends.

READ MORE: City, county to consider pilot program addressing homelessness, partially funded by ARPA

The training is part of New Hanover County and City of Wilmington’s “Getting Home Street Outreach Program,” signed off by both entities in September. The initiative will link homeless individuals, especially those with mental or substance use issues, with needed resources. The main focus is to build relationships, offer support and help the unsheltered obtain permanent housing.

The program is pairing Wilmington police officers with four social workers to interact with the unsheltered population.

County spokesperson Jessica Loeper said the hired individuals will begin a three-day training process. WDI agreed to offer the program, provided through its contract with Nashville-based consultants Block By Block, that includes in-person classroom and field instruction. The cost is $1,000 per day.

Block By Block works to revitalize urban neighborhoods by improving public safety, economic opportunity, access to clean water, sustainability and livability. WDI hired the consultant company initially to manage the municipal services district and tacked on the outreach aspect as an addendum to its contract.

The county chose to reach out to WDI once the Getting Home initiative was solidified to utilize its resources.

“They have developed a comprehensive approach and plan for street outreach that is highly effective in engaging various partners in assisting individuals one at a time when there are no short-term fixes to the many drivers of what’s keeping people on the streets,” Loeper said.

The nonprofit economic development and outreach organization started its pilot program with the city in September 2021 to connect with unhoused individuals. The city chose to continue the program this year and signed a five-year agreement with WDI to provide services within the municipal services district. 

WDI and the county’s DHHS are working out details of a memorandum of understanding for the nonprofit to provide training and insight to county workers. 

A draft of the MOU obtained by Port City Daily notes goals of the program include preparing the unsheltered population for sheltering and receiving services; enhancing public safety with a clean and secure downtown; and expanding collaboration between community agencies to create a comprehensive network of resources.

The MOU is not finalized yet, Loeper clarified.

WDI’s social worker Jack Morris was hired in fall 2021 as its street outreach specialist. He was tasked with helping people access social services, which includes providing transportation, overseeing case management and building relationships with the population.

Training for future employees of the new program will likely include similar skills.

Hays explained the county reached out requesting Morris for the upcoming training.

“He has been a one-true shining light in this homeless situation,” she told Port City Daily. “Everybody’s struggling; we want so badly to do the right thing, but sometimes we could do more harm than good.”

Hays said WDI offered to bring in Block by Block’s outreach coordinator Chico Lockhart, who trained Morris locally.

Lockhart will lead the classroom instruction and Morris will assist with the field instruction since he had the local knowledge and relationships with the current unsheltered population.

“He’s had good success integrating into the homeless population, gaining their trust, which is a huge issue,” Hays said of Morris. “Because we can’t help unless they trust us.”

WDI vice president Christina Haley said during a municipal services district committee meeting Nov. 17 that Morris has had 554 interactions with 83 individuals in the last month alone. According to WDI, there is an unhoused population of about 70 sleeping in the MSD — up from 30 estimated in 2021 when the pilot program began.

The latest vacancy report of area shelters for Nov. 30, obtained by Port City Daily, shows there are only four total beds open at this time among seven shelters, indicating a large population utilizing the services.

In November, the MSD committee unanimously voted to give Morris a 20% salary increase.

Haley noted the new county social workers hired for the homelessness initiative will be earning a little over $55,000 per year, while Morris makes $43,680. She requested an approved jump in his pay to equal the county workers and remain competitive and in line with his day-to-day responsibilities.

In a July email sent by commissioner vice chair Deb Hays, a scope of work was outlined for Morris to include safety tactics, observing escalated behaviors and de-escalating tactics, ethical considerations and tips on interacting with individuals experiencing mental illness or drug abuse.

“He’s out on the street working with our most vulnerable population; he has a knowledge and relationship with folks across downtown that is pretty miraculous,” she said at the meeting. “He’s had knives pulled on him before, shots swung at him. This is not an easy job.”

Board member McKay Siegel noted Morris has earned a bump in pay.

“He is certainly worth his weight downtown,” Siegel said at the meeting. “The biggest complaint I get from homeowners is about the homeless population, and Jack has been able to reach out and maybe not relocate them, but make them less aggressive and get out in front of anyone that’s a problem.”

He added, at least vocally, complaints about livability downtown have ceased.

On Oct. 24, Brooklyn Arts Center owner Jay Tatum reached out to county commissioners via email noting he has called the police multiple times over the last few months. He said the homeless population was trespassing his property on North Fourth Street at night.

“Within two weeks, we had the police remove two different groups of homeless folk who said that they were living underneath the bridge, gotten into a fight or argument with other people, therefore they were trying to find another place to sleep … which ended up being our property,” Tatum wrote. “My question to you is … what is being done about the encampment underneath the third street bridge?”

He added the garbage underneath the bridge was an embarrassment, but more so he is concerned for his employees, guests, and his own child who takes classes at CFCC that traverse the area. 

Haley said during the MSD meeting that WDI has been working to clean up homeless encampments, specifically under the Third Street Bridge.

“We are well aware that’s an ongoing issue,” she said.

The North Carolina Department of Transportation is technically responsible for maintenance of the bridge and has agreed to assist with cleanups, according to Haley. It has a February date scheduled for its next effort.

A large volunteer group, including Wilmington Police Department and the county social workers being trained for the Getting Home initiative, came out in November to assist with trash pickup.

“It was a mess,” WPD Lt. Jason Nichols said at the MSD meeting. “It’s good for now, for God knows how long — hopefully longer than normal.”

MSD ambassadors are committed to two cleanups in the next two months — Dec. 1 and Jan. 5. A regular schedule is being fleshed out and Haley said crews will begin to track the amount of waste accumulated month to month.

“I’m hoping the county can step in along with DOT and get a schedule going with multiple crews on a more routine basis,” Haley said. “Maybe try to reduce the trash issues, interact with hold more sleeping under the bridge and get them the services they need.”

Loeper confirmed the county will focus its clean-up efforts on the county-owned block by downtown’s public library.

“WDI never had the thought process we would be heavily involved in social work,” Hays told PCD. “But part of our economic development has to be on the homeless population.”

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