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NHC Commissioners remove $50 fine from homelessness ordinance, keep language banning sleeping or congregating

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New Hanover County Board of Commissioners at its Monday evening meeting

On Monday, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance that would prohibit the unsheltered population from congregating on all county-owned properties. Commissioners questioned some key points in the ordinance, which led to a larger debate on how to tackle the homeless problem in Wilmington as a whole.

The library in downtown Wilmington is a popular spot for the homeless to gather. That has meant safety concerns for library patrons and residents downtown — and led county staff to propose an ordinance with stricter penalties for camping or sleeping on county property.

In September of last year, a three-day survey conducted by Block by Block showed there were on average 30 homeless individuals during the day, and 20 people were sleeping overnight in downtown Wilmington.

In early February, Deputy County Manager Tim Burgess sent an email to county staff expressing his frustration with how the downtown county library property looked. Trash, alcohol bottles, and syringes have all been found by the library on the block owned by the county, bounded by Chesnut, Grace, 2nd, and 3rd streets.

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

Burgess says the county is required to keep the parking deck cleaned, but it’s hard when the homeless tend to stockpile their items.

“We’ve had limited success even though everyone has been working real hard. Once they clean the property up, within a matter of days sometimes, it’s back in the condition you’ll see today," he said.

Burgess also said the goal is to get the homeless the help they need.

“Our primary thing is to get these individuals the services they need, the wrap-around services they need, and to try to get them to a better place in life. That’s really where our primary focus is," he said.

Some commissioners say the ordinance would create more problems for homeless people before they could find other solutions.

Commissioner Jonathan Barfield also noted it’s not possible to fine a person $50 when they're already homeless.

“If I’m homeless, where am I going to get $50 from is my first question," he said.

Commissioners agreed to remove the fine, but the ordinance still leaves the homeless with nowhere to go at night — since sleeping will be prohibited from 10:00 pm to 7:00 am.

Many of the homeless need wrap-around services such as mental health support. New Hanover County doesn’t have a facility that will treat someone longterm – and, at the same time, there are a lot of homeless people that won’t accept services.

Recently, Wilmington Downtown Inc., a non-profit funded by a special tax on the downtown municipal area, hired a Street Outreach Specialist that goes into downtown Wilmington and connects the homeless with services they need.

Commissioner Deb Hays said, since being hired in September, the Street Outreach Specialist had made progress with getting some of the homeless help.

“He has had tremendous success in working with the homeless, his whole job is outreach to the homeless," she said.

Hays also mentioned even though there’s been progress, there’s still more work to be done. The safety of the residents has been a big concern and the county provided several examples of incidents, including two WDI workers who were transported to the hospital after being attacked by homeless people.

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

Commissioner Rob Zapple questioned why the county is the only one involved if 3rd Street is in the City of Wilmington.

“Where is the city and Wilmington Police Department at in all of this and why aren’t we hearing more from them," he said.

Commissioner Rivenbark says a day shelter could be a possible solution while trying to get the homeless the help they need.

“I think there is a parcel somewhere in Wilmington Downtown that we can put a day shelter, so these people can have a place where they can go brush their teeth, take a shower, use the bathroom, have a nurse to go by and check on them," he said.

The ordinance was approved 4-1, with Barfield voting against it. It will require a second reading before going into effect.

Ashley Brown is from from Houston, TX. She holds a BA in Mass Communication from Sam Houston State University and an MA in Professional Communication and Digital Media from Texas Southern University. Her love of news, radio, and entertainment led her to the field of journalism. As a creative person, she loves the journalistic challenge of putting stories together. And as a future news reporter, she hopes to tell stories that reach and affect people. In her spare time, she enjoys music, reading, journaling, spending time with friends and family, and trying out new brunch places to eat.