Homeless in downtown Wilmington, people look for services, solace, and somewhere to go
Lately, there have been a lot of conversations about homeless people in downtown — including a failed attempt to pass new county laws with stricter penalties. But one group that hasn’t been part of the conversation are the homeless themselves.
Getting to know Wilmington's homeless population
Before the homeless moved to the county library, the gazebo on WaterStreet was the place to congregate and receive food.
Reverend Randy Evans has been working full time with the homeless since 2015, and knows the situation better than many people. He started off working in a day center at a church, which eventually led him on his own path.
“I told city council members. I told several other people that you cannot shut this gazebo down — unless you have a plan — unless you have a way of addressing this need. Because if you do, and I literally said this, they're going to go in front of the library and congregate,” he said.
Evans eventually founded Walking Tall Wilmington, essentially a mobile service he ran out of his house. And it was essentially totally mobile, I did everything out of my house,” he said. Evans not only provided the homeless with meals, he also made sure they had daily essentials.
“We did meals, clothes, we would transport individuals to the hospital rehabilitation centers, we would help them get their IDs, medications, [and] eyeglasses,” he said.
Evans didn’t stop there — in 2018 he started the Feast Gathering Churchwhich allowed him to do a lot more.
“[We] picked up a lot more resources where we [have] a washer and dryer trailer, we [have] a shower trailer, we [have] a clothes closet [and] we do several meals,” he said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Evans doubled the work he did for the homeless because of the shutdown. He said he didn’t want to forget about the homeless who were suffering before the pandemic.
“We added four meals a week, during COVID, for that reason, because a lot of people had backed out and slowed down their services,” he said.
Evans says the work he does not just for the homeless but anyone living in poverty is deep and meaningful to him. He enjoys listening to people's stories — although many of those are from homeless people who feel unwanted and unseen in Wilmington. Evans said he doesn’t treat the homeless any differently because of their economic status. He always goes into each situation with an open mind.
“I look at it in a very holistic way. I don't know what mental illnesses these individuals are dealing with, I don't know what kind of trauma that these individuals are dealing with, I walk into every situation with an attitude that you have value, that you have agency, that you have the right to make your own choices,” he said.
Struggling for services
For the last six years, he’s noticed that a lot of homeless people come to Wilmington to receive services. Lately, he's noticed more people having difficulty finding their way.
“What ends up happening is individuals who come to this town, they're trying to navigate the resources and they're so scattered, they're not easily accessible,” he said.
He said educating the homeless on the requirements for a lot of resources would make it easier for them to gain access.
“If they're felons, or if they've been robbed, or they don't have their information, you know, there's all these steps that have to be taken before you can even get to point A,” he said.
He also says the officials in Wilmington have little interaction with the homeless community.
“A lot of the times what I've noticed is its perception. If we don't see it going on, if we don't hear about it, then it must not be happening. And these individuals, they're a part of this community whether the government in Wilmington likes it or not,” he said.
Last year, Wilmington Downtown Incorporated hired a Street Outreach Specialist, Jack Morris, who works with the unsheltered population to help them receive resources if they want them. Evan said he's doing good work.
"He's one of the first people that I've seen in six years, actually take the time to get to know someone because the thing about it is, it's not cookie-cutter," he said.
Voices from the street
One thing everyone can agree with is that the homeless need resources — and those living on the streets say there just aren’t enough.
“There's just not enough help in Wilmington, Wilmington needs more help for us, more rehabilitation. We need more programs out here and the ones that do take advantage of the programs still don't get the right help,” 23-year-old Cassidy Roddam said.
She’s been homeless since 2019 – she moved to Wilmington with her husband Mark to try and get help. But despite being pregnant, she said she hasn’t been able to get moved up on the waiting list for the local shelter.
“We heard that there's tremendous help out here. And there's tremendous resources. And so my husband and I had been out here for three years trying to get off the streets,” she said.
Cassidy is originally from Fayetteville and life for her has never been easy.
“My background mostly is that I come from a very abusive home. I've been through the foster care system. I've been through mental hospitals. I've been raped a couple of times. I've had guys take advantage of me being homeless and try to pick me up being homeless. It's just been hard out here,” she said.
She tried to have a relationship with her family but she said she doesn’t want to endure any more abuse in her life.
“That's why I became homeless again in 2019. That's why I'm still homeless to this day, because I could live with my parents, but I'd have to deal with verbal abuse,” she said.
Cassidy takes advantage of the resources available like being in the coordinated entry program – which coordinates and prioritizes access to housing and assistance. She is also working with multiple churches and going to local soup kitchens and food pantries.
Cassidy and her husband Mark are able to eat three times a day because people like Randy and First Fruit ministries provide food to the homeless. She said the Street Outreach Specialist has been helpful — but he can’t do it alone.
“He was very kind and helpful. He's been helping me and my husband with as much housing as he can, but there's only so much he can do,” she said.
She says the city and county could do a lot more — like providing housing.
“Instead of opening more shelters or boarding houses, turn some of these buildings that y'all are not using for anything at all – fix them up and make them affordable housing,” she said.
Every night – Cassidy and her husband plan out where they’re going to sleep and how to keep each other safe. She says they have a main spot at a church but it's not always guaranteed when living on the streets.
“We have to continuously plan on these things. Like whether someone else may want to start something with us. Or someone's gonna want to try to walk up on us and hurt us because we're homeless — the homeless deal with people walking up on them and hurting them for no reason,” she said.
She said the homeless get treated poorly in Wilmington. When they're at the county library, people walk by harass them and even throw things at them.
“Most people out here, try to talk to people that are walking by and they stick their noses up, or they give us a snide look, or they judge us or they call us names. Or we get harassed [and] told to kill ourselves,” she said.
Cassidy said they just want somewhere to go.
“They want to remove us from those places and run us out and we don't have anywhere to go. You can't sleep on the sidewalks like that. And [the library] is already trying to kick us out. And it's not like we have that many places to sleep because of property laws and how the laws work with sleeping on certain properties,” she said.
Cassidy has her high school diploma and doesn’t mind working but said jobs won’t hire her.
“We put job applications in and they keep telling us two months from now, come back two months from now, three months from now, four months from now,” she said.
Cassidy says she has a plan for her life: going to college to become a graphic designer.
“I want to become a graphic game designer, I want to design games like GTA video games and stuff like that. I want to become a photographer. I love photography. I love art [like] drawing. A lot of us have ambitions and dreams that we want to do,” she said.
Cassidy says her faith in God and attending Randy’s church every Saturday is what keeps her motivated.
“He always gives us words of wisdom, and courage. If it wasn't for Randy, a lot of us wouldn't have the faith and strength that we have out here,” she said.
What comes after treatment?
51-year-old Robert Lancasper is originally from Gastonia, NC. He was sent here by his ex-wife because he suffers from alcohol abuse.
Robert said the hardest part about recovery is once you get out of treatment.
“I've done good for two years. Everybody says [this] is a good place to come for recovery. Just [because you have] rehabs and [if you] don’t help people out when they get out, they [will go] back to doing the same damn thing,” he said.
Before being homeless, Robert was a plumber. He owned a home for 45 years and used to travel to places like Florida. He started drinking around the time his grandmother had a stroke and later died.
As he reflects on his past and talks about his family, he gets emotional.
“My mama, I had my whole family, I had two brothers and a sister. But my grandma, my mama’s daddy, my step-grandma adopted me,” he said.
Robert said he wants to work. He made good money as a plumber, but his current condition and the lack of help is what’s holding him back.
“I can't do it out here, because I sleep on the street. And I [don’t have] a car. [I’ve] never filled out an application online. This is so crazy,” he said.
Robert said things have changed over the years. In the past, he didn’t have to fill out job applications online, he would just go to the job and be hired on the spot.
He wants to stay in Wilmington because back home in Gastonia there is a lot of temptation.
“I went home for 24 hours, hell I had a weekend pass. I got up there my friends [were] still smoking crack and all that shit so I had to come back,” he said.
Robert’s alcohol use means he probably won’t be accepted at a shelter. He said since being homeless — the library has always been the best place for him.
“I've been out here on the streets for like six years and the only place that [I] was actually ever safe at is right here in front of the library," he said. “If you go to other places, you don't know who's gonna be jumping on you and everything. Y'all are trying to take that away from us and that’s [not] cool," he said.
Many homeless people feel unwanted in Wilmington, Robert said. Most just want some help.
“If you don't like us being in town you need to get more help and get [us] at least a place to stay and help us get to work because I can work,” he said.
Robert suggested that the city could provide an area for the homeless so they wouldn’t have to sleep at the library: “Give us like a couple of acres somewhere, so we can put up tents or something and help us out. I mean to be honest with you, [because] y'all are not helping us."
He said the homeless don't tear up anything but admits they could keep the area cleaner.
“A lot of people are rude because they don't pick up trash. I think if we pick up our own trash and everything, I think we would have a little area,” he said.
It remains unclear if the county will pursue additional measures to keep the homeless away from the library, but Robert said he believes the development of Project Grace — the county's plan to redevelop the entire block where the library currently sits — will eventually push them out.