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Dispatch: On the street with cops, social workers, and homeless people in a time of uncertainty

Sergeant Ron Evans from the Wilmington Police Department's Getting Home team speaks with a homeless woman on November 29th, 2023
Kelly Kenoyer
Sergeant Ron Evans from the Wilmington Police Department's Getting Home team speaks with a homeless woman on November 29th, 2023. Most of the team members are focused on outreach, rather than enforcement.

Last winter, the Wilmington Police Department started coordinating with social workers from New Hanover County to serve the homeless population downtown. A year later and after the closures of two major homeless encampments, WHQR’s Kelly Kenoyer did a ride along with WPD to get an update.

The day for Sergeant Ron Evans starts in his Wilmington Police Department truck, responding to a call about a camp behind the local grocery store.

We jump out of the car in the parking lot behind a Food Lion, and start peering through the bushes. There are a couple of tents set up among the trees, and we briefly see the face of a very wary looking man before he ducks back down.

Evans and another officer make their way back through the bushes and make the approach.

"Morning!" Evans says.

"Morning," the man responds, before talking at a very rapid pace: "I’m on my way out of here, packing up today. But my wife is, she's on parole and has an ankle monitor. You gotta get permission to move. But I'm packing up, moving out as soon as she gets back in here.”

Evans said his reaction is common- when the police arrive, campers know it’s time to move along. Evans gets his name, which we’re not including to protect his privacy, and digs into his history.

“You said you guys have been here for two weeks?" Evans asks.

"About two to three weeks," the man says.

Evans asks the man, "Where's home for you?"

"I'm from Onslow County," the man responds.

Evan asks, “What brought you to Wilmington?

“I went to LINC to finish my drug program," the man says. "Finish my parole out here and I've been stuck here since."

"Gotcha," Evans says, and asks, "Is that where a family is and stuff in Onslow too, or?"

"My parents are dead," the man says. "I really don't have anybody with me and my wife really she's, she's from another county like me, she came out here and go to the same program."

Evans keeps asking about his experiences locally. The guy tells him he’s connected to Coastal Horizons. They give him a business card with a social worker’s phone number, and suggest that he packs up and moves along before they come back in a day or two. That’s what the property owners requested, at least. The guy doesn’t have a phone of his own, but says his wife does.

This is how most of the team’s interactions with the homeless go. The WPD team is mainly reactive: they often get calls because property owners or passersby are concerned about campers, and they go check it out with a friendly greeting — and they try to get them connected to local resources, like the county’s social workers.

WPD considers their efforts outreach, but the county's social workers say they sometimes have an easier time building trust when they go in alone. That seemed clear from the ridealong: while the WPD team scoped out an abandoned apartment building, one man rode up on a bike, saw the officers, and turned right around to leave. That’s not as common with social workers in street clothes.

Still, Evans has some pleasant interactions. One woman we met that day said, “Thank you. You’re always so nice!”

He knew her from several other interactions over the past year of the program.

"It's all about the approach. Again, establishing that thing, as far as developing rapport. ‘Good morning. How are you? I'm Sergeant Evans,’ what's your name? They're, at the end of the day, they're still human beings. At the end of the day, they're still citizens," he explained.

Katelyn Mattox runs the county side of the program, and said their social workers cooperate with the police a few ways: they share info about cases, and sometimes come to camps together. But they work separately as well. All told, the program has engaged 300 individuals, and is actively working with about 100 to move towards their personal goals.

“It's very important that we not impose our wants and desires onto other people," Mattox said. They need to establish what they would like to work on. And then we will help support them in that process.”

Mattox and her team have helped individuals access drug treatment, go to medical appointments, and stabilize a bit by having a safe place to store their possessions. Most importantly, they’ve helped people get housing.

“Over the time that we have been a team, we have helped 22 people access permanent housing.”

But a lot of those folks were placed with family members who they had lost contact with. There’s still a dearth of resources in Wilmington to help people with no connections, like the gentleman Evans met behind Food Lion. For them, the limited shelter space and lack of housing availability is a real barrier — it’s hard to accept help when that help looks like a waitlist.

"Do we have people who would take us up on housing offers or offers for shelter or offers for services, if they were more readily available? Yes, I think that they would," Mattox said.

Evans agrees that there aren’t sufficient resources for the need.

“Well, of course everything comes down to money. Everything is coming down to affordable housing," he said.

He’s spent hours just helping one person look for resources for a bed for the night: Good Shepherd Center is full, Salvation Army is closed. The abandoned apartment he patrolled that day puts a bad taste in his mouth: he sees it as a lost opportunity.

"This is an example of places that have been abandoned for years. You would think that property owners would come demolish it, or remodel it and open it up as a as a homeless shelter or some type of something like that," Evans said.

Evans and his colleague cleared the buildings, and told the campers on the abandoned property to move on. But where they’ll move on to, that’s anybody’s guess. In a region with limited shelter, and few scraps of unbuilt land, it’s hard for the homeless to know where they can sleep.

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.