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Homelessness, alleviated briefly by pandemic resources, is again becoming chronic in Wilmington

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A homeless person sleeping at the parking deck in Downtown Wilmington

Wilmington, NC has experienced a homeless crisis for over a decade. At one point, officials felt the issue was under control but, within the last few years, the problem has increased significantly. Could the increase be from natural disasters, the pandemic, affordable housing, or a lack of services? 

Throughout the City of Wilmington, it’s not uncommon to see a homeless person on a corner with a need help sign. If you decide to explore downtown Wilmington, as you approach 3rd and Chestnut streets, you’ll see the homeless gathering, sleeping, and forming lines to receive food — and those lines have been getting longer lately.

Many factors could have contributed to the increase in the homeless population. Mayor Bill Saffo said he first noticed an increase after Hurricane Florence in 2018.

“I feel that there was a spike after Hurricane Florence. Whether that was people that were coming here into the area to work and homeless or displaced in surrounding counties or even in this county here, but I sensed that there was a spike," he said.

He also says the city has been working to find a solution to the problem.

“I mean, it's definitely a very complex issue. It's something that we've been working on for a number of years," he said.

In 2008, the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County developed a 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness according to a 2020 StarNews article. From 2008 to 2018, there was a decrease in the number of homeless people compared to 2007, the year before the plan was established.

Some might ask: how many homeless people are in the City of Wilmington?

The agency tasked with answering that tricky question is the Tri-County Continuum of Care — that’s a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded program that provides services to help reduce and eliminate homelessness.

The program provides what’s called a Point-In-Time Count. Every year in January, the program is required to go out into the city with the help of volunteers to survey the homeless population.

Continuum of Care Director Judy Herring says, a lot of factors make it hard to get an accurate count of how many people are actually homeless.

“It's very hard to count the Point-in-Time count that occurs every January. It's very hard to count people in rural areas when it's cold, and they're gonna find some place to go to stay warm, especially if they have children. Whereas in the summertime, they might be more visible," she said.

In New Hanover County, people living on the streets or in tents are more visible. Counties like Pender and Brunswick, that have been more rural for sometime, the homeless population tends to overcrowd in one home or sleep in otherwise uninhabited homes — out of the public eyes.

Saffo also emphasized on how the number of homeless people could be much higher than the 500-700 people that’s counted on average.

“From our perspective, it's not an accurate count. There could be a lot more people that are homeless or living in homes that don't have water or sewer, or heat, or living in their car that we don't engage," he said.

The Continuum of Care serves New Hanover, Pender, and Brunswick County, but New Hanover County has a higher population of homeless people because of the many services.

“Services are based in New Hanover County in the city of Wilmington. And so people will come here to take advantage of the services here," Herring said.

Last year, the City of Wilmington, invested $7 million to support affordable housing and human services in partnership with local non-profits. New Hanover County uses about $63 million annually for social service programs. The city has allocated about $1 million to local non-profit organizations that support homeless initiatives as well.

In 2020, the pandemic provided a lot of resources like rental assistance and stimulus checks, which is likely why the 2020 Point-In-Time count shows a decrease in the homeless population.

Now, with a lot of pandemic resources no longer available, Herring said a lot of people are dealing with the aftermath, especially finding a home.

“This has been the hardest time to realistically move people into some sort of permanent housing. And unless something changes quickly, I see our list growing and not a lot of permanent housing solutions coming online for the population that we serve," she said.

In the past, there were more homeless single white males than any other group, but Herring sayid, the number of homeless families is growing.

“More and more, we're seeing families with children. So that's the number that's really grown over the years is the number of homeless families with children," she said.