Commissioners strengthen ordinance to discourage homeless from tenting out on county property

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Assistant District Manager Tim Burgess sent New Hanover District Commissioners this photo of district-owned properties surrounded by Third Street, Grace Street and Chestnut Streets in February.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County on Monday afternoon passed amendments to an ordinance to bar the unprotected population from congregating on their leased or owned properties, specifically targeting the downtown library — which led to a “residence break” for crowds – and including 1,800 acres of parkland. While the vote may hurt some people affected by homelessness by limiting options, it also sparked a conversation to solve the larger problem in the area.

“I don’t want to just toss it on a shelf and forget about it,” Commissioner Bill Rivenbark said during the meeting. “I want to make sure that tomorrow morning we start figuring out how to fix this problem.”

The Board of Commissions approved the new rules 4-1 and voted not to proceed with the imposition of a $50 civil penalty, which was reportedly intended as a “last resort” anyway. Under the revised rules, sleeping on county property is prohibited from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and unattended items — such as clothing, food or bedding — left for more than two hours must be disposed of. However, items that are considered hazardous to safety or health may be taken on site.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield was the only ‘no’ vote (as adoption was not unanimous it will require a second reading). He suggested that the board and staff volunteer to look at vulnerable populations to customize their lens.

“I think we need to look at how to fix the problem and not create another problem,” Barfield said.

According to an October survey by Block by Block, downtown’s homeless population numbers about 30 people. But downtown street communications specialist Jack Morris told Port City Daily in January the number was likely much larger as some people are temporary and others are living in and out of short-term housing.

In an email to the commissioners in early February, Deputy District Superintendent Tim Burgess attached photos of debris strewn throughout the library campus and told commissioners’ staff that they intend to come up with new rules to improve conditions . He said Monday that if the area is cleared, the piles will reappear within days.

“If you walk by today, you can see that items have been stacked to the right of the parking deck,” Burgess said. “That’s actually how it all started, just trying to deal with the items left behind.”

The gatherings on Third, Grace and Chestnut streets have allegedly contributed to assaults, library disturbances and public urination, according to the county’s anecdotal findings. The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office shared 10 reports from 2021: one aggravated assault, one simple assault, one overdose, one drug use violation, four thefts and one robbery, and one found property in 2021. (Wilmington Police Department responded not in response to a press request, but is not usually the first response to state-owned property.)

Commissioner Deb Hays, who serves on the Wilmington Downtown, Inc. executive committee, said two Municipal Service District employees were taken to the hospital after being attacked by homeless people. Commissioner Rob Zapple added that syringes were also found at the site.

“We have some people who are very aggressive and harm themselves and others,” Hays said. “So I think we have to take that into account as well.”

The commissioners called for the original proposed $50 fine for the ordinance to be imposed, acknowledging that a homeless person probably couldn’t afford it anyway. The ordinance still gives law enforcement officials the power to charge the person with trespassing under state statutes if they fail to comply.

“These are regulations that are not currently on our books,” Zapple said. “One way to look at this is to provide another tool in the worst case scenario and only use this regulation as a last resort.”

In statements to the media, a county spokesman said that public relations was the priority, not MPs’ intervention. (Often an interaction with the criminal justice system and a subsequent court order can force people to seek help through an aid program.) Efforts are also being made to raise awareness of the new policy before MPs are dispatched to deal with repeat offenders to speak to the district.

“If this helps us get a person — a person — the help they need and the treatment they need, then that’s our responsibility,” Hays said.

In December, WDI announced that the Municipal Services District had hired Morris as its full-time street contact specialist, connecting the homeless with social services. Hays said Morris will place individuals in out-of-town clinics that serve people under the influence, which Wilmington doesn’t offer. In other cases, they are taken to psychiatric services. Sometimes people don’t want help at all.

“Some of them will never get out of the forest,” said Rivenbark. “They just won’t do it.”

Still, the commissioners recognized the need for a new day shelter, especially as the Salvation Army will construct a new building on Martin Luther King Parkway that will leave a void downtown.

As of Monday morning, the Good Shepherd Center had just opened 10 more beds for men and six for women after receiving a spike in calls in recent weeks. Assistant Director Kyle Abrams said the shelter is also easing Covid-19 restrictions and he expects the space to fill up quickly once the news broke. The Salvation Army had four male and two female positions.

First Fruit Ministries reported four open spaces in its 16-bed transitional housing program that require an application and do not qualify as shelters. It accommodates up to 80 guests in its day lodge, which is open twice a week.

Before the Covid-19 restrictions, there were a total of 259 emergency shelters in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, including youth-specific shelters and domestic violence shelters, according to the Cape Fear Governing Council Inventory. That number was reduced to 154 beds during the pandemic.

Two projects that could help are in the works: The county’s healing site will serve as a new residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility, due to open this year. Eden Village, a small 31-unit community operated by a non-profit organization, is also under construction and will provide sanctuary for the chronically homeless upon completion.

As a condition of granting Novant Health land for a Michael Jordan clinic last year, the county and city asked the hospital to evaluate whether either of the two transferred lots could house a day shelter. County manager Chris Coudriet said it was quickly determined that the size of his property was not suitable for this use.

Rivenbark said his brother, Councilor Charlie Rivenbark, said the city is likely open to partnering with a day care center.

“I’m not saying throw people out in the cold,” Rivenbark said.

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