City and county consider pilot homelessness program, partially funded by ARPA

A resolution to approve a joint initiative, The Getting Home Street Outreach program, to address the growing needs of homeless populations, will be reviewed by the county and city in meetings early next week. (PCD/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A need to address the the growing homeless population in the area could receive resources from two local government agencies. Next week, Wilmington City Council members and the New Hanover Board of Commissioners will vote on a pilot program, intended to provide a holistic approach to homelessness.

Billed as the “Getting Home Street Outreach Program,” the initiative will provide resources for mental health, substance use disorders, employment, housing, medical and dental care, among other needs . It would include a street team of four social workers, accompanied by a policeman, to help those who want it.

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“The focus is not on treatment, but on preparing unprotected people for housing and moving out of an ‘unprotected’ category,” according to an email exchange between the deputy county director of the NHC , Tufanna Bradley, and Meg McBride of Hope Recovery Church and Hope Recuperative Care, a community agency that works with homeless populations.

“I think the end goal should always be housing,” said McBride, also a SOAR social worker and board member of the Tri-County Homeless Interagency Council (TRI-HIC). “But the real heart of this level of work is trying to put a few pieces together in order to move a client forward in a positive direction. Some days it might be getting them hot food and just listening or driving to the DSS and having them check in for food stamps. … A lot of this work is just encouraging people.

Bradley said Wilmington Downtown Inc.’s Street Awareness Specialist Pilot Project, led by Jack Morris, would be able to provide feedback. Morris, a social worker, has been working with homeless people for a year, offering assistance for wraparound services that could improve quality of life.

In October 2021, WDI commissioned Block by Block to investigate Downtown, which reported a homeless population of approximately 30 people. Still, Morris told the Port City Daily in January the number is likely much higher as some people are transient and others move in and out of short-term accommodation.

The point in time of 2022 from the Cape Fear Council of Governments shows there are 347 homeless countywide, up from 301 in 2021.

Getting Home will include pairing Wilmington police officers with four social workers to address areas within the Wilmington city limits. The one that dominated the conversation is the downtown library.

Last spring, the county considered an ordinance that would prevent unsheltered people from camping on county-owned property and impose a $50 civil penalty on trespassers. Essentially, no action went into effect, after the county received denunciations in a letter signed by area nonprofits — Good Shepherd Center, Family Promise, Salvation Army, A Safe Place and Tri- HIC.

Tri-HIC Continuum of Care board chair Michele Bennett told Port City Daily at the time that the move could prevent homeless people from accessing free Wi-Fi, contacting a worker social in the building or to obtain library resources.

The order was suggested in response to complaints from community and regional leaders. At the time, Vice Commissioner Commissioner Deb Hays mentioned that two municipal service district employees were taken to hospital after being attacked by homeless people.

In July, a letter from a legal assistant in the district attorney’s office expressed concerns about public urination and adults sleeping in the stairwells in the parking lot next to the library. Caroline Scorza said she frequently had to step over people when walking to work.

“Today there was a large pile of human excrement (I believe) at the bottom of the stairs,” she wrote to facility manager Sara Warmuth. “When I leave work in the afternoon, there’s always a bunch of people hanging out on the benches near Story Park, smoking pot and shouting obscenities. I no longer use the return of books through the main entrance of the Library in the morning because of all the people sleeping in front (who often wake up volatile and screaming). Most of my colleagues avoid using the parking lot for these reasons.

Last month, the county disclosed in a statement that it was working to resolve issues following the arrest of a homeless man for alleged sexual assault, which the sheriff’s office said took place at the library near the parking lot.

The county began researching ways to “identify needs” and “determine the best kind of partnership” in April, county spokeswoman Jessica Loeper confirmed.

According to Donna Fayko, director of the New Hanover County Department of Health and Human Services, the county has looked at street outreach programs, including WDI, but also in other cities with positive results, including Wichita, Kansas, Austin, Texas and Bloomington, Indiana.

“[Getting Home] would balance both compassion and responsibility, and ensure that the right allocation of resources could be made to make this happen,” Loeper said.

The initiative is funded by funds received through the American Rescue Plan Act. It will cost the county $460,563 to cover the first nine months; however, it will not include cleaning. New Hanover will bear these costs through contractual services or its own services.

A county spokesperson did not specify which encampments or heavily populated areas within the city limits require special attention.

“All of these details will be ironed out as the program becomes operational,” Loeper said. “It will be in areas where homeless people congregate, but the details of what it looks like and when should all be determined based on need.”

The goal is for homecoming to be in place through December 2024. Cumulatively, the county would spend $1,181,688 to cover the salaries and benefits of four social workers and one supervisor, two vehicles, the area camp cleaning services and other miscellaneous items.

The City’s contribution will cover the police.

“No additional funding is required as the officer would already be in service,” city spokesman Dylan Lee said. “WPD assigns existing resources to the program.”

Getting Home will be a collaborative effort between the county, city, department of health and human services, and other community organizations.

It is expected to begin on October 1 and staffing will be complete on November 1.

Although ARPA funding is only applicable through 2024, Getting Home has the potential to extend beyond that time frame. Loeper confirmed that the county will monitor the program continuously to understand any adjustments needed.

For example, commissioners may reconsider amending Chapter 38 of the New Hanover County code in the future. The ordinance would prohibit “overnight sleeping on county property and provide for the disposal of items left unattended.”

“The commissioners had discussions about this at [a recent] review of the agenda and the majority feeling was that it should not be considered at this time,” Loeper said, “but rather give the program time to take hold and see if a difference is made. .

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners meets Monday at 9 a.m. and the City of Wilmington meets Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

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Ryan H. Bowman