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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Nonprofits protest homeless ordinance as it moves to second reading

The changes would limit times people can sleep on county-owned property and prohibit leaving items behind

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It was déjà vu at this week’s New Hanover County commissioners’ meeting. An ordinance presented last year to address concerns with the unsheltered population was voted on again Monday — almost a year after it didn’t pass muster.

One commissioner dissented, meaning the vote to change the ordinance has to go to a second reading next month.

READ MORE: NHC circles back to restricting the homeless from sleeping on county properties

Like last year, Jonathan Barfield voted against enacting rules that would prohibit individuals from sleeping on county-owned land from 10 p.m. to 7 p.m. and leaving behind their belongings. In 2022, he disagreed with a $50 citation included in the ordinance; this year’s re-proposal has dropped the fee.

Overall, county manager Chris Coudriet said the goal of the ordinance update is for people to use properties for the “purpose they were designed — not to be living there or camping there on a regular basis.”

Chair Bill Rivenbark, vice chair LeAnn Pierce and commissioners Rob Zapple and Deb Hays were in full support of passing the ordinance. Barfield’s preference was to give the county and city’s joint Getting Home initiative more time to prove success in connecting unsheltered individuals with resources and ultimately housing.

“We’ve already interjected as opposed to giving something the time to bear the fruit we wanted it to bear,” Barfield told PCD Tuesday.

Getting Home, which launched last month, pairs social workers with police officers to engage people experiencing homelessness with wrap-around services. 

“We need to give them the opportunity to do what we’ve asked them to do,” Barfield said at the meeting. “In my opinion, charging someone with a task to bring forth a great opportunity and giving it a month to work, how does that solve the problem?”

The Cape Fear Continuum of Care expressed the same sentiments in a letter to county commissioners on Friday, Jan. 20, addressing the proposed ordinance adjustments:

“We worry that the changes will not alleviate the problem but merely shift it to other areas, like city or even privately owned property. We also fear that some of the persons living unsheltered, especially those with a disability, literally have nowhere else to go. Identifying solutions requires more time and cooperation.”

The letter was signed by board members of the CoC, who sent a similar letter last year to commissioners. This year it was signed by chair Michele Bennet; vice chair Meg McBride, pastor of Hope Recovery Church; Laura Bullock with Vigilant Hope; Jessica Biel with Pender County Schools; Dawn Ferrer, program director for A Safe Place; Leslie Smiley, executive director from Cape Fear Health Net; Andrea Stough, executive director of the Domestic Violence Shelter and Services, Inc.; Ann Best, executive director of Family Promise; and Kyle Abrams, assistant director of Good Shepherd Center.

The correspondence urged commissioners to table their vote on the ordinance until more data could be gleaned from the Getting Home program. It also noted progress has already been made and relationships are being strengthened. Many agencies that CoC board members work for are partnering with the Getting Home Program, according to the letter.

“It takes a village,” the letter reads.

According to health and human services director Donna Fayko, since December the Getting Home team has provided housing support for nine individuals and made more than 50 appropriate connections to resources. Other milestones include de-escalating potential conflicts more than a dozen times. The effort also assisted with alcohol or substance-use treatment, intercepted unattended items left in public spaces, and collaborated with service providers and faith-based programs to aid in support.

The outreach team also has 16 individuals utilizing newly created bin dens — a safe and secure storage facility for homeless individuals to store their belongings and keep them off the streets.

“After a month, about six weeks, we’re making some progress in the community,” Fayko told commissioners. “A lot more needs to be made. These are complex issues.”

The letter from CoC revealed a new day shelter is in progress of opening. Hope Recovery United Methodist Church was awarded $27,800 from the New Hanover Community Endowment to re-open its day shelter downtown.

As of Jan. 20, there were only six beds out of about 150 (down from pre-pandemic) across 12 organizations providing shelter for homeless individuals.

Currently, there are roughly 350 homeless individuals — 92 are considered chronically homeless — according to CoC’s database. The number has increased from 300 in 2021, 51 of whom were considered chronically homeless.

Jessica and Kevin Cannon, both physicians in Wilmington, sent an email to commissioners last week urging they consider another option — implementing a “housing first” initiative. 

“Unlike traditional models, Housing First does not require that individuals demonstrate that they are not abusing substances or have their mental health issues resolved before being offered housing. This approach removes barriers to getting people off the streets and into safe and secure housing, allowing them to address other issues in their lives more effectively,” an email signed by the couple noted.

The Cannons referenced a 2004 health study showing Housing First participants are more likely to remain “stably housed compared to those receiving traditional treatment for homelessness.” They also said the program would be less expensive than creating a day shelter and pointed to proceeds from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center as a source of funds.

Hays responded to the Cannons that she would be interested in discussing the idea. At Monday’s meeting she, along with Coudriet, noted the ordinance was needed because current conditions on some properties have created a health hazard due to public urination and defecation, litter and open drug use.

The county is spending $2,400 per week to clean up the downtown library and Second Street parking deck. Every Thursday the cleaning company throws away unattended items and pressure washes areas being used as public restrooms.

Barfield expressed concern at Monday’s meeting that the ordinance would cover other countywide properties including parks.

“Folks are focused on the library, but if you pass an ordinance for the county, it’s for the entire county,” Barfield reminded. “We don’t have the opportunity to pick and choose.”

He used the example of someone napping at Long Leaf Park. The ordinance’s language would essentially ban them from “sleeping on county property” during the restricted hours.

Coudriet clarified the county could revamp the ordinance to be more specific about locations, if need be.

“Allowing them to live and sleep in inhumane conditions doesn’t benefit anybody,” Sheriff Ed McMahon told commissioners at the meeting. He suggested the ordinance prohibit sleeping on county properties 24/7.

“Allow my office the ability to ensure a safe environment for employees and citizens using the area,” he pleaded. “At this time, there’s nothing law enforcement can do unless a crime is committed.”

Pierce and Rivenbark visited the downtown properties with McMahon prior to the ordinance being reintroduced.

“I’ve gone and sat and talked to these people,” Rivenbark said. “There is a group of people, they just don’t care. They don’t want to get out in society and get a paycheck every Friday. They’re just not going to do it and you can’t make them.”

McMahon said deputies respond to reports of assault, drug use and larcenies and have made several arrests.

When PCD asked the NHCSO last week about criminal reports at the library, 201 Chestnut St., 12 incidents came up for 2022; only one was reported the parking deck at 212 N. Second St. Lt. Jerry Brewer was surprised there were not more and indicated none of the reports specify if an unsheltered individual was involved.

“The situation is intolerable,” Zapple said. “This has been going on for too long. We need to make more aggressive steps to help clean it up.”

Zapple said county employees frequently tell him they don’t feel safe using the parking deck. The ordinance also states that parking decks and parking lots are for parking and associated activities only.

Rivenbark added he’s heard other counties are sending people experiencing homelessness to New Hanover.

Brunswick and Pender county spokespeople told PCD they were not aware of any organizations advocating to send the homeless to New Hanover County. Earlier in the month, Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams spoke to the city about the area’s crime numbers and refuted such rumors. 

“This is a theory some of our officers have had,” he said. “It came up about two years ago that Myrtle Beach was bussing people in. I called the chief of police, Amy Prock; he assured me that is not the case.”

A second reading to vote on the ordinance will be held at commissioners’ Feb. 6 meeting. A unanimous vote is not needed to pass; it only needs a majority.

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