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NHC commissioners consider civil, criminal penalties to remove ‘homeless population’ from downtown library

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A homeless person sleeping at the parking deck in Downtown Wilmington

On Monday, commissioners will consider amending a county ordinance to effectively make it illegal for people who are homeless to camp out at the county’s downtown library, parking deck, and other county properties.

The proposed amendment has several key points, aimed at managing the “homeless population” on county property; the updated ordinance, if approved, would cover all county buildings, facilities, and property but is motivated by and aimed at the downtown library – which the county said has become “a place of respite for our homeless population.” The county owns the entire block bounded by 2nd, 3rd, Chesnut, and Grace streets.

The ordinance notes that despite the efforts of Wilmington Downtown Incorporated – including their new homeless outreach position – the county is “experiencing several issues of concern,” including “several alleged assaults, multiple instances of disruptions in the library, and using outdoor areas as restroom facilities” as well as people sleeping at the library and parking deck overnight, and storing their belongings there.

The key points of the ordinance are:

  • Prohibiting sleeping on county property from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
  • Making it illegal to “occupy, camp, sleep, erect or utilize any tents, cooking equipment or bedding" during those hours 
  • Allowing disposal of items left unattended for more than two hours
  • Exemptions for emergency management sheltering events, county employees performing their jobs, “partially the general public within a county facility for the purpose of transacting business,” and other exceptions made by the county manager (or the manager’s designee)

Enforcement

The ordinance allows a civil fine of $50 as well as subjecting violators to removal by law enforcement and possible criminal charges for violating trespassing laws as laid out by Chapter 14 of the North Carolina General Statutes – likely a second-degree offense. Punishments for this offense, a Class 3 misdemeanor, vary but include up to $200 fines and up to 10 days in jail for a first conviction (up to 20 days with multiple convictions).

Any law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the area could, in theory, enforce the ordinance and the criminal violations stemming from it.

Asked about where the people currently sleeping and congregating on the property are expected to go, the county responded, "[w]e are grateful for the efforts of staff from WDI and other wraparound service providers who work tirelessly to help the homeless in our community by providing them with a variety of alternative places to stay. Those frontline workers will continue to assist our homeless population and provide them safe shelter at additional facilities and locations throughout the county. While this ordinance can be enforced by local law enforcement officials, its intent is to be only be used as a last resort with outreach assistance being a priority.

The agenda item for the amendment indicates that “[I]f this ordinance is adopted, community outreach will take place to ensure potentially impacted parties are aware of the ordinance and can comply before involvement of any law enforcement.”

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

The item is on the county’s ‘consent agenda,’ and will not receive discussion unless a commissioner requests to pull it off for further review. However, since the ordinance changes county code without a public hearing, approval must be unanimous to avoid the requirement of a second reading.

Background

The proposed amendment to Ordinance Chapter 38 of county code comes from Deputy County Manager Tim Burgess, who first emailed county staff in early February. Burgess expressed frustration with the growing population of people who were homeless at the downtown library and parking deck, sharing at least one photo of a tent on the library property.

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Undated photograph sent from New Hanover County Deputy Manager Tim Burgess to staff.

In a February 2 email, Burgess wrote, “Attached are pictures which better illustrate the problem. As I mentioned in my previous email, ‘Although we are sympathetic to the needs of the homeless, we also have the responsibility to ensure that the property is safe, maintained properly, and is an attraction to those who visit or live downtown.’ Based on the current state of the property, we are not able to achieve this goal.”

At the time, the county politely declined to discuss the proposed ordinance in more detail since it had not yet been calendared for any upcoming meeting.

Upcoming meeting

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners will meet on Monday, March 21, at 4 p.m. in Room 301 the Historic New Hanover County Courthouse.

Below: Proposed amendment to Ordinance Chapter 38

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.