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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

What's happened to the homeless population that used to live at the downtown library?

Upstateherd
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Wikimedia Commons

New Hanover County banned the unhoused from sleeping on its property in early February, targeting a population that had congregated around the downtown library. So what’s happened since?

On February 6, New Hanover County Commissioners approved a policy targeting homeless people who sleep at the library.

At the time, a county spokesperson said law enforcement would take some time to roll out the policy to make sure the residents were fairly informed before serious enforcement began. Those sleeping there or having bedding on county property could face trespassing charges; that’s a third-degree misdemeanor, which could mean a $200 fine and up to 20 days in jail, although officials have called that a last resort.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer said the policy was necessary.

“You know, that was a bad situation. I think anybody with common sense would say that," he said. "It had to be corrected. I mean, we had people, females getting raped. We have people getting stabbed. We had a stabbing as recently as like a weekend ago.”

Nearly every day since the ordinance passed, Wilmington police officers or Sheriff's deputies are taking time to talk to the citizens who spend time around the library.

Randy Evans is a local pastor who does street outreach and provides meals at the library. He says a police officer told him to find another place to provide those meals.

"What hit me most in that situation was the look of fear and submission and suffocation on the face of our community. That they were in fear of even being there, that they had no right to be there," Evans said.

Evans was so upset, he went back the following morning.

“I brought some coffee and some food and made a sign that said 'Poverty isn't a crime,'" he said.

He said a police officer showed up and chatted with him without making any threats or moves at enforcement. It was daytime, after all, and he wasn’t breaking the ordinance by congregating there.

"She left, then maybe an hour later, three sheriff's [deputies] show up, and told me based off the ordinance that I couldn't set up cooking equipment," Evans said. "I'm like, 'this, this is a box of coffee and some doughnuts.' I'm not going to abide to some broad overarching ordinance that says I can't have food here when that says cooking equipment.”

It’s clear now that the folks who used to stay at the library have left. But where have they gone?

WHQR surveyed workers and business owners at 11 downtown businesses, and many of them said they hadn’t seen much of a change in the homeless population downtown. Some, situated closer to the library, said they’ve seen the same residents there — but circulating more.

One parking attendant told WHQR that those same unhoused folks are now walking for a while, then resting for 30 or so minute — just as long as they can without drawing too much attention.

Israel Sorenson is a waiter at Port City Cheesesteak. He said things have changed in the past month.

“Since the ordinance was put in place, you see a lot of the homeless people actually holing up in front of more public like restaurants and businesses in areas that can provide them proper shelter," Sorenson said, gesturing to the alcove entrance to his restaurant. "Versus having a one, one or two spots where they can all just commute and be able to look at look after each other.”

Other downtown businesses feel differently. Daisy Miller works at Port City Java and said, initially, they saw more unhoused folks coming into the cafe. She said they stop allowing people to just ask for a cup of hot water, and then stay in the cafe for hours.

“We put that into effect last week, because after they put out the ordinance, we had a large number of them coming inside and using our facilities. And it was just bringing down business. So we had to put a new policy into effect," she said.

Now that the unhoused can't spend their time at Port City Java, it's unclear where exactly they've gone. A few sit on benches near the library, or on nearby streets. One unhoused man named Jason, told me where they’ve gone.

"They’ve scattered. They come over there certain days of the week," he said.

According to Jason, law enforcement has really pushed people out of downtown.

“It's not easy. If you’re sitting here for one or five minutes, then they're on your ass," he said.

Megan McBride, a pastor who works with the homeless, said a lot of those people have moved into wooded areas of the city. Recent clearcutting has uncovered tents and settlements in wooded areas near the mall. She said she’s worried about that group from the library, and they’re harder to find now.

"The Salvation Army is closing on May 1, they've been waiting to, you know, make a new building and move for a long time. And now they're ready to make that move," she explained. "But then what fills that gap? Like, you can't just expect that to close and not have a gap. And for our city and county to not have a plan for that."

For their part, city and county officials have said they're aware of the gaps the closing of the Salvation Army — as it prepares to move to a new location off of MLK Parkway. But a public-facing plan from the Salvation Army hasn't been presented yet.

Related: Closing of downtown Wilmington Salvation Army could leave support gap until new facility opens

Lieutenant Brewer said the main thing is that the library wasn’t the solution.

“I don't know where they've gone to. That's, you know, like I said, I think some of these other agencies that deal with them on a daily basis could probably have a better answer than me," he said. "Finding a solution that both the city and the county can help get help for the people who need help, and who are homeless.”

In the meantime, there’s still no short-term plan to replace the Salvation Army shelter, and there are not enough shelter beds in Wilmington for the number of people living on the streets.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.