County, city hold joint meeting on homelessness: No meaningful plan arises
Elected officials from Wilmington and New Hanover County held a joint meeting today to discuss the homelessness crisis in the Cape Fear Region. As WHQR’s Ben Schachtman and Kelly Kenoyer report, they struggled to come up with a meaningful plan of action.
Ben Schachtman: So Kelly. The New Hanover County Commission and the Wilmington City Council met today to discuss homelessness. How did it go?
Kelly Kenoyer: Honestly, it seems like most of the public officials were disappointed by the conversation. Staffers proposed a new task force for homelessness, and the public officials shot it down. That came almost 2 hours into the meeting, basically at the end, after officials decided they probably should have invited service providers to the table.
BS: Wow. And they started planning this meeting in November, right?
KK: That’s what they said.
BS: Ok, but what else was said during this 2-hour meeting?
KK: Well, county and city staffers and a representative from Wilmington Downtown Incorporated talked about existing government programs to help the homeless. That includes two government initiatives: the getting home program, where police work with social workers to connect the unhoused to services, and WDI’s street outreach program, which is one guy named Jack who similarly connects the unhoused to services.
BS: I will say I’ve heard from downtown businesses that Jack – Jack Morris – has actually made a big difference, although he is just one guy. Also, I hear this a lot – connecting people to services. Who is providing these services?
KK: Well, that’s who wasn’t invited to the table: the service providers. It’s a mix of religious organizations and non-profits. Folks like Good Shepherd Center, Vigilant Hope, and Eden Village. And the ever-absent Salvation Army, which closed up shop more than a year ago and still hasn’t broken ground on a replacement shelter.
BS: Ok, well, tell me more about this taskforce proposal that was shot down.
KK: Basically, it seems like the elected officials considered it half-baked. Staffers suggested a 29-member task force meet virtually 8 times in the next year, then they can present their findings to the two government bodies.
BS: Right, it was going to be online because of the bridge closures, apparently – and, I’m just going to say here that, one, that’s a difficult number of people to manage in person and, as someone who attended a lot of meetings of smaller groups online during the pandemic, that sounds like a mess.
KK: They also suggested a consultant called Fountainworks be pulled in to run the meetings, to the tune of $2500 per meeting. Which, as a service provider who texted me pointed out - is enough to rapidly rehouse one person per meeting, if they were to use the money on that instead of a consultant.
BS: And there was pushback from a number of public officials against spending money on an out of town consultant – we also heard pushback from some more conservative officials about whether spending money, in general, will solve homelessness.
KK: Yeah, specifically Commissioner Dane Scalise.
Dane Scalise: “This is a very complicated issue that cannot be solved merely by spending more money.”
BS: So, certainly we’ve seen programs were money was poorly managed – and you want accountability and oversight when you’re funding things. But I’ve heard people say that money can’t help the homeless at all, but we know that’s simply not true – there are definitely examples where well-managed programs have pulled people out of abject homelessness and saved their lives.
KK: But back to the task force – by the end of the meeting, it became clear that this was a group of elected officials who aren’t necessarily educated on best practices, and they realized that they should probably have another meeting with the experts at the table to actually work on a better proposal.
BS: I want to play a long clip from Commissioner Jonathan Barfield because what he’s saying encapsulates a lot of what we’ve heard from the homeless services community.
Jonathan Barfield: “For me, I’m not sure that having another task force is the answer. We’ve had multiple task forces, we had one on affordable housing, we had one on community relations. And what I often find is that these folks spend tremendous amounts of time meeting and making recommendations to the city and the county, only for us to rebuff their recommendations. And so, I find that we waste people's time and their talent by not taking into consideration the things that they bring to bear. I believe we already know what the problem is and what the challenges are. For years we had a 10 year plan to end chronic homelessness here that evolved into the CoC. There’s no new information. My wife and I were talking about this verse in the bible that there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s really nothing new under the sun. We understand what the challenges are. We have organizations in this community that work in this realm every day. They are the community experts on what we need to do, and I would want us to work diligently with these organizations to empower them financially and otherwise to continue to do the work.”
KK: Local experts agree: we know what needs to be done to solve this problem, or make it much better. It’s a multi-pronged approach, not one-size fits all, and it’s not free. But it would make a meaningful difference not just in the lives of the unhoused in this community, but in the lives of everyone who lives here who gets frustrated seeing people sleeping in the streets.
BS: Well Kelly, thanks for covering this one.
KK: No problem.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article called Vigilant Hope a church, but it is actually a faith-based non-profit.