NHC commissioners consider civil and criminal penalties to remove ‘homeless population’ from downtown library

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The proposed amendment has several key points, aimed at managing the “homeless population” on county properties; the updated ordinance, if approved, would cover all county buildings, facilities and property, but is driven by and targets the downtown library – which the county says has become “a place of respite for our homeless population”. The county owns the entire block bounded by 2nd, 3rd, Chestnut, and Grace streets.

The order notes that despite the best efforts of Wilmington Downtown Incorporated – including their new homeless outreach post – the county “is experiencing several concerning issues,” including “several alleged assaults, multiple instances of disturbances in the library and the use of outdoor spaces as restrooms,” as well as people sleeping in the library and in the parking lot overnight and storing their stuff there.

The key points of the order are:

  • No sleeping on county property from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.
  • Make it illegal “to occupy, camp, sleep, erect or use tents, cooking equipment or bedding” during these hours
  • Allow disposal of items left unattended for more than two hours
  • Exemptions for emergency management lodging events, county employees performing their jobs, “partially the general public at a county facility for the purpose of conducting business” and other exceptions made by the county executive ( or the person designated by the director)

Enforcement

The order allows for a $50 civil fine as well as the possibility of dismissal of violators by law enforcement and possible criminal charges for violating trespassing laws as set forth by Chapter 14 of the North Carolina General Bylaws – likely a second-degree infraction. Penalties for this offence, a Class 3 misdemeanor, vary but include fines of up to $200 and up to 10 days in jail for a first conviction (up to 20 days for multiple convictions).

Any law enforcement agency with jurisdiction in the area could, in theory, enforce the order and the criminal offenses arising from it.

Asked where people currently sleeping and congregating on the property should go, the county replied, “[w]We are grateful for the efforts of WDI staff and other comprehensive service providers who work tirelessly to help homeless people in our community by providing a variety of alternative places to stay. These frontline workers will continue to assist our homeless population and provide them with safe shelter in additional facilities and locations throughout the county. While this order can be enforced by local law enforcement officials, its intent is to be used only as a last resort, with outreach assistance being a priority.

The amendment agenda item states that “[I]If this order is passed, community outreach will take place to ensure that potentially affected parties are aware of the order and can comply with it prior to any law enforcement response.

Related: Homelessness, Briefly Eased by Pandemic Resources, Becomes Chronic Again in Wilmington

The item is on the county’s “consent agenda” and will not be discussed unless a commissioner requests to remove it for further consideration. However, since the ordinance changes the county code without public, approval must be unanimous to avoid the requirement for a second reading.

context

The proposed amendment to Chapter 38 of the County Code Ordinance comes from Deputy County Executive Tim Burgess, who first emailed county staff in early February. Burgess expressed frustration with the growing population of homeless people at the library and downtown parking lot, sharing at least one photo of a tent on library property.

Undated photograph sent by New Hanover County Assistant Manager Tim Burgess to staff.

In a Feb. 2 email, Burgess wrote, “Attached are images that better illustrate the issue. As I mentioned in my previous email, “While we are sensitive to the needs of homeless people, we also have a responsibility to ensure that the property is safe, properly maintained and attractive to those visiting or living downtown”. Based on the current state of the property, we are unable to meet this target.

At the time, the county politely declined to further discuss the proposed ordinance because it had not yet been scheduled for an upcoming meeting.

Upcoming meeting

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners will meet Monday, March 21 at 4 p.m. in Room 301 of the historic New Hanover County Courthouse.

Below: Proposed amendment to Chapter 38 of the Ordinance

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