Dispatch: People living at MLK and Kerr homeless encampment face uncertainty after removal
Last Wednesday marked the last real day that authorities tolerated a homeless encampment at MLK Parkway and Kerr Avenue. WHQR's Kelly Kenoyer spoke to people as they struggled to figure out what comes next.
I accessed the encampment by a dusty dirt road meant for maintaining power lines, just off Kerr Avenue. The open land under Duke’s powerlines is largely vacant, but the nearby wooded area hides a sprawling range of camps, dotting the woods.
Previously, people had lived there with little harassment. But renewed interest in the camp came when foliage got trimmed back.
Around the same time, a county ordinance effectively pushed many members of the downtown Wilmington homeless community off of the downtown library property. That left residents — and reporters — wondering where those homeless folks went.
It also brought new attention to the camp, and Wilmington Police Sergeant Ron Evans told WHQR in July that he was working on getting permission to enforce a no-trespassing order on that property.
“We've been in contact with representatives from those landowners, the Cameron family, you know, they are, they are willing, I guess, to enforce trespassing on their property," he explained at the time. "Duke and NCDOT, we're still in talks with them to see what it is, exactly, they will or will not allow on their property. So it's a work in progress.”
Evidently, those talks worked. NCDOT decided to enforce a no-trespassing ban, with the support of WPD, which went into effect Wednesday. That’s the day a bulldozer arrived, and the No Trespassing signs were posted on fences.
Under the power lines, the land is clear. But stepping into the woods, small encampments become visible. Fire pits and salvaged furniture, clothes-lines and, yes, garbage.
There were a couple of dogs there, including a puppy named Kodak and a yappy, but friendly, female whose name I didn't catch. Chef, who said he was visiting friends out there in the woods, introduced me to the dogs. He said there were at least 100 people staying in the camp at its peak, and he's not sure where everyone will go.
“Ain’t nobody got no idea, that’s why everybody is still sitting here," he said.
Chef said he’s known people in the camp for two or three years. I asked if it was true that more people moved there in February after the county ordinance went into effect.
“You think homeless people got pulled from downtown? No, it's the same people still out here. it's the same number, it ain't changed," he said. "It's just politics. It didn't change, actually. It's the same people here as last year. They didn't come from downtown. But they all came from all walks of life."
One of the residents, Vincent, said he's been at the camp for five months. He’s on disability and was in a hotel on Market Street until just before summer. He’s built a pretty impressive home for himself with a walk-in tent and a covered outdoor area protecting his motorcycle. He even has a TV running off a generator. He said he relies on his fellow campers.
“Don't y'all feel like you're losing the community?" he shouted to the rest of camp, to general agreement. "I said 'heck yeah.' This was a hood, know what I mean? Like people say, 'their hood, their block, their home.' We built a family you know what I'm saying, the family chain here. Through the ups and downs and heartaches and woes."
Vincent doesn’t know what he’ll do next. Stability has been hard for him to find.
“Unfortunately we actually have been forced to camp. There's no room in Salvation Army and then so I don't really know what to do at this point was to get myself in a storage unit," he said.
The Salvation Army campus in downtown Wilmington closed this year, and it's expected to be another year or more until its new facility, located on MLK Jr. Parkway, opens.
"Push comes to shove, I might find a night or two to put a tent up away from here. Disability said they will help me with some emergency money or whatever, so I'm trying to charge my phone up to get with them — and hopefully help somebody else at the same time.”
WPD Public Information Officer Gregory Willett said individual officers will use their best judgment in how to handle any stragglers, whether with a helping hand or with trespassing charges. As for where the campers will go, the police know as little as the campers do about that answer. Willett said they might just find another place to camp near a big box store like Target, which is nearby.
"They’ll end up going anywhere they can go. For lack of a better term and not to oversimplify it, it's kind of like a terrible game of Whack-a-Mole. Where can they go? I’ll tell you what, if I could answer that question, I’d probably get a Nobel Peace Prize or something,” he said.
In states on the West Coast, a 9th Circuit court ruling called Martin v. Boise prevents law enforcement from punishing unhoused individuals who sleep on public land when there are no reasonable alternatives available. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, making it law in the 9th circuit — but not in any other jurisdictions.
The case law implies that sleep deprivation is cruel and unusual punishment. Were it the law in Wilmington, the lack of available shelter space would mean government bodies couldn't ban homeless individuals from simply existing on public property, although it wouldn't prevent law enforcement from enforcing no-trespassing orders on private land. But in North Carolina, no such caselaw applies.
While Martin v. Boise has strange implications in the West, it does create an answer to the question, "where are they to go?" That question has no real answer in New Hanover County. Officer Willett said it's up to a private property owner to decide it's not a problem if campers show up, so long as their existence there doesn't violate city or county ordinances around habitation and trash.
As for Vincent, his future was still an open question when we talked. Around him, other campers were packing up and moving out, but he mostly seemed hopeless.
"It's like they say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he said. "So hopefully, we stay at it and learn from this, you know?”