NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County passed changes to an ordinance Monday afternoon to deter the unsheltered population from congregating at its leased or owned properties, specifically targeting the downtown library, which it says has become a “respite” for crowds. While the vote may hurt some people experiencing homelessness by limiting options, it also sparked a conversation to solve the larger issue in the region.
“I don’t want to just throw it up on a shelf and forget about it,” commissioner Bill Rivenbark said during the meeting. “I want to make sure that we start tomorrow morning, trying to figure out how we will fix this problem.”
The board of commissioners adopted the new regulations 4-1 and voted not to move forward with incorporating a $50 civil penalty, which was reportedly supposed to be a “last resort” anyway. Per the revised rules, sleeping on county property is prohibited from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and unattended belongings — like clothing, food or bedding — left for more than two hours are subject to disposal. However, items deemed a safety or health hazard could be taken on the spot.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield was the sole “nay” vote (because the adoption was not unanimous, it will require a second reading). He suggested the board and staff volunteer with unsheltered populations to adjust their lens.
“I think we need to be looking at how do we address solving the problem and not creating another problem,” Barfield said.
The downtown homeless population comprises about 30 people, according to an October survey by Block by Block. However, downtown street outreach specialist Jack 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.
In an early February email to commissioners, deputy county manager Tim Burgess attached photos of debris dispersed throughout the library grounds to an email and told commissioners staff intended to bring forward new rules to improve the conditions. He said Monday that when the area is cleared, piles reappear within days.
“When you go by today, you can see that there are items that have been stockedpiled to the right of the parking deck,” Burgess said. “That’s really how this all got started, was just trying to be able to deal with those items that have been left.”
The gatherings at Third, Grace, and Chestnut streets have allegedly contributed to assaults, disruptions in the library and public urination, according to the county’s anecdotal findings. New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office shared 10 reports from 2021: one aggravated assault, one simple assault, an overdose, a violation for drug use, four larcenies and one robbery, and one lost and found property in 2021. (Wilmington Police Department did not respond to a request by press but is typically not the first respondent to county-owned property.)
Commissioner Deb Hays, who serves on the Wilmington Downtown, Inc. executive committee, said two Municipal Service District workers were transported to the hospital after they were attacked by homeless people. Commissioner Rob Zapple added that syringes are found on the grounds, too.
“We have some people that are being very aggressive and that are harming themselves and other individuals,” Hays said. “So, I think we have to take that into consideration as well.”
Commissioners asked to strike the $50 penalty originally proposed for the ordinance, acknowledging a person without housing likely could not afford that anyway. The ordinance still gives law enforcement authority to charge the person for trespassing in accordance with state statutes if they do not comply.
“These are ordinances that are not currently on our books,” Zapple said. “So a way to look at this is providing another tool in the worst-case scenarios and that this ordinance would only be used as a last measure.”
In statements to media, a county spokesperson explained outreach is the priority, not the intervention of deputies. (Often an interaction with the criminal justice system and a subsequent court order can force people to get help through an assistance program.) Efforts will also be made to spread awareness of the new policies before deputies are sent out to speak with repeat offenders, according to the county.
“If this will help us get one person — one person — the help that they need and help to get them to the treatment that they need, then that’s something that we have a responsibility to do,” Hays said.
In December, WDI announced the Municipal Services District hired Morris as its full-time street outreach specialist, connecting those experiencing homelessness to social services. Hays said Morris will take individuals to out-of-town clinics serving people under the influence. Other times they are brought to mental health services. Sometimes people do not want help at all.
“Some of them are never going to come out of the woods,” Rivenbark said. “They’re just not gonna do it.”
Still, commissioners recognized the need for a new day shelter, especially since The Salvation Army is set to construct a new building off of Martin Luther King Parkway, which will leave a void downtown.
On Monday morning, Good Shepherd Center had just opened 10 more beds for men and six for women after receiving a spike in calls over the past few weeks. Associate director Kyle Abrams said the shelter was also loosening Covid-19 restrictions and he expected, once word got out, for the space to fill up quickly. The Salvation Army had four male and two female vacancies.
First Fruit Ministries was reporting four open spaces in its 16-bed transitional housing program, which requires an application and is not considered an emergency shelter. It can accommodate up to 80 guests in its day shelter, which is open twice a week.
Before Covid-19 limitations, there were 259 total shelter beds in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, according to Cape Fear Council of Governments’ inventory, including youth-specific and domestic violence shelters. That number was cut to 154 beds during the pandemic.
Two projects that may help are in the works: The county’s Healing Place will serve as a new residential drug and alcohol recovery facility, set to open this year. Eden Village, a 31-unit tiny home community ran by a nonprofit, is also under construction and once complete, will give refuge to those who are chronically homeless.
As a condition for granting land to Novant Health for a Michael Jordan clinic last year, the county and city asked the hospital to consider whether one of the two transferred parcels could host a day shelter. County manager Chris Coudriet said it was quickly determined the size of its property was not suitable for that use.
Rivenbark said his brother, council member Charlie Rivenbark, said the city would likely be open to partnering on a day shelter.
“I don’t want to say throw people out in the cold,” Rivenbark said.
Clarification: A previous version of this article mentioned parks. Parks were briefly discussed during Monday’s meeting, but a county spokesperson clarified New Hanover County already has an ordinance prohibiting setting up temporary shelter overnight in a park or being in any park between midnight and sunrise. The new ordinance applies to any other county-owned or leased facilities.
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