© 2024 254 North Front Street, Suite 300, Wilmington, NC 28401 | 910.343.1640
News Classical 91.3 Wilmington 92.7 Wilmington 96.7 Southport
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

NHC commissioners need additional vote next month for ordinance aimed at homeless people near library

Commissioners listened to Sheriff Ed McMahon detail problems with the homeless population in front of the downtown library.
Commissioners listened to Sheriff Ed McMahon detail problems with the homeless population in front of the downtown library.

On Monday, New Hanover County Commissioners debated a controversial amendment to Chapter 38 of the county’s code of ordinances, essentially imposing potential trespassing charges for those sleeping on county property. The underlying reason for the discussion is what to do about those who are homeless and living around the downtown public library.

The summary of the amendment, according to county documents, is sleeping on county property would be prohibited from 10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., items left unattended on county grounds are subject to disposal, and parking decks are for parking only.

For the first review of the amendment, or 'first reading', commissioners voted 4 to 1 to pass the changes to the ordinance, with Commissioner Jonathan Barfield dissenting. Since this ordinance needed a unanimous vote to become active without public comment, it has to come back before the commissioners at their next meeting on February 6. It does not need a unanimous vote to pass then.

However, some or all of the commissioners could change their minds, as was the case in spring of last year, when a similar ordinance was defeated on second reading.

Summary of the ordinance changes
Summary of the ordinance changes

Getting Home program

Before Sheriff Ed McMahon and commissioners weighed in on the problem, Donna Fayko, the county’s health and human services director, gave a presentation on the results of the $1.6 million federally funded Getting Home Program that brings together county social workers and Wilmington Police Department officers to help the homeless get into treatment services.

This program, which is ‘person-centered’, according to Fayko, was an attempt to make inroads to help the population living in front of the library.

Related: Wilmington and New Hanover officials discuss what works when it comes to addressing the opioid crisis

Fayko said that before these social workers were deployed, they learned how to give Naloxone, a lifesaving drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, and received training on implicit bias and mental health first aid.

Starting on December 9, they started to offer ‘bin-dens’ where people could keep their belongings in a safe space, which would also cut down on clutter and sometimes litter around the library.

Fayko said it took a while for many to trust the county social workers to keep their belongings safe. She said they now are securing about 16 people’s things. They come between 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. to pick up or drop off their items.

“The county is making some progress on these complex issues,” Fayko said, as they have facilitated about 53 connections to mental health and medical supports. She added that on March 9, there will be a new day shelter opening for this population.

Jessica Loeper, chief communications officer for the county, said Fayko was "referring to Hope Recovery and The Anchor Church, and Meg McBride is leading that effort. I believe March 9 was noted as a soft opening."

Getting Home program results, mainly December 2022
Getting Home program results, mainly December 2022 to current (January 23')

Despite these efforts, litter remains an issue. Sara Warmuth, the facilities management director, said they spend about $2,400 a week on clean-up efforts around the library and in the parking deck. The cost to date to clean this area is about $13,000, according to Warmuth. They contract with two biohazard clean-up companies to do this work.

Sheriff details criminal issues, asks for broader ordinance scope

Then it was Sheriff Ed McMahon’s turn to present the issues that his office is dealing with in terms of this community. McMahon praised the work of the Getting Home program thus far but told commissioners they’ve responded to assaults, sexual assaults, larcenies, and drug activities at this location over the past year. Many of these crimes have been committed against homeless people who are also homeless.

He continued to say that the problems were growing every day and that the parking deck stairwells are being used as bathrooms, which presents a public health crisis.

McMahon went as far as to ask the commission if they could amend the proposed ordinance to state that there be no sleeping at any time, not just from 10:00 at night to 7:00 in the morning. He reiterated that the public is not safe in these areas — and that citizens deserve to feel secure when they visit county property.

After Fayko and McMahon gave their presentations, commissioners weighed in on the problem and explained their impending vote on the ordinance.

Commissioners weigh in

Vice-Chair LeAnn Pierce said, “I do think we are a compassionate society, and we have to help these folks as much as we can, and I think New Hanover County has really made strides [...], but when I hear our sheriff say that he fears for the safety of the citizens that are coming to our area, that’s a problem for me.”

The other commissioners gave comments in line with Pierce’s statement, except for Commissioner Jonathan Barfield.

“The task force or team [Getting Home program] has just come together in November, put things in place in December, and already in January, we’re saying, ‘Ok, thanks for your efforts, we want to do it our way.’ Why do we ask people to help us, and then refuse the help that they offer?”

He also mentioned the work of Cape Fear Continuum of Care supporting this population.

But Commissioner Rob Zapple said, “the situation is intolerable and employees don’t feel safe. [...] There is a stench in the stairway; we are seeing active drug use right there out in the open. This has gone on for too long.”

Commission Chair Bill Rivenbark agreed and said that the other surrounding counties know that New Hanover county “has such a nice plan for the homeless, [so] they’re sending them [here]. So, that’s not going to work.”

He added that when he went down and talked to the people living in front of the library, he concluded, “there’s a group of people that just don’t care. [...] You can’t make them do it [want to go out and get a paycheck]. I told them, ‘you can’t just do it right there, you have to go and do it somewhere else,’ I don’t know what to do with these people who have mental health issues, but we’re going to try.”

Rivenbark acknowledged the possible public pushback against him, “I know I’m going to get emails this week and next telling us how heartless we are.”

The commissioners reiterated that they support the continuation of the Getting Home program, but want to give the Sheriff’s Office the ability to act and prevent the homeless from continuing to set up camp in front of the library.

Pierce at one point asked McMahon if his officers could discern between a person just taking a brief nap with someone living on the property, as Barfield reminded the commission that this ordinance would affect all county properties, not just the downtown library.

McMahon said they could make this distinction — and county manager Chris Coudriet said that in the proposed ordinance, “there is language that is inclusive of designated areas, administratively, or through the direction of the board, we can address that.”

In contrast to McMahon, Coudriet said he'd like to keep the trespass times the same (10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.) and not have sleeping barred 24 hours a day. But he did say if things do not improve if and when the ordinance passes, commissioners can revisit it.

Before the conversation came to a close, Zapple reiterated that the county has let this “problem go on and it has increased, the public urination and defecation. We’ve tried to deal with this, and we’ve raised the red flag, and it’s not getting better. This is common sense. We have to give the authority to stop this.”

Barfield said to Zapple that even though the problem was not new, the Getting Home program was, and that the county is not allowing sufficient time for the program to see improvements.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR