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Council member’s ordinance targeting unsheltered to surface in June

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Council member Luke Waddell speaking at at Wilmington City Council meeting. (Port City Daily/file photo)

WILMINGTON — A council member’s anticipated move to ban sleeping, camping or idling on city property, aimed at the unsheltered population, is scheduled to appear before council in June. 

READ MORE: ‘Community’s asking for it’: City ordinance floated as way to combat homelessness downtown

ALSO: Trespassing up as homeless population scatters: Officials differ on how to proceed

Port City Daily obtained a May 3 email from council member Luke Waddell requesting an ordinance mirroring the one passed by New Hanover County commissioners in February 2023.

The ordinance prohibits sleeping and camping on county-owned properties from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. and states parking decks and lots are for parking and associated activities only. It also says personal items cannot be left unattended and entrances to city facilities are for ingress and egress only. 

Waddell requested the draft ordinance by May 17, but city attorney Meredith Everhart requested a delay until June to give her more time. According to her email, the ordinance is to be presented before council on June 7, with final action as early as June 27.

Last fall, Waddell informed  he would bring an ordinance of this ilk before the city. He announced it during a community event hosted by Wilmington Downtown Inc. and Wilmington Police Department, to address crime in downtown.

“A lot of other municipalities and counties around the country are starting to do the same. The city does not currently have one,” Waddell said in November. “Personally, I think that’s a problem.”

Waddell directed Port City Daily to his prior statements when asked for an interview on the upcoming proposal. 

The council member has been vocal on his view that agencies should focus on substance abuse or mental health treatments, which he believes are root contributors of homelessness. He has also supported stricter enforcement of unlawful behavior. 

This outlook is in opposition to the Housing First model, whereby homeless people  are connected with permanent housing without preconditions and barriers to entry; this is the U.S. government’s chosen method, and thus must be complied with to receive federal funds.

In November, council member Kevin Spears told Port City Daily he would not support Waddell’s ordinance; he did not respond to PCD’s recent request if his position remained.

Freshman council members David Joyner and Salette Andrews both said they would need more information before commenting in the fall. Last week, they both indicated disfavor for the move and pointed to its prematurity amidst the council’s and New Hanover County commissioners’ development of a joint homelessness strategy. 

“That plan is going to need to have elements of public safety; it’s going to need to have some sort of mechanism for us to address folks who are unhoused and who are potentially committing criminal activity,” Joyner said. “But I think it’s too soon to be doing this, and so I’m not ready to commit one way or the other as to what any ordinances around public homelessness downtown would look like until I know what that broader strategy is going to encompass.” 

Council and commissioners have met twice to discuss their approaches to reducing homelessness and have plans to adopt a strategy, with input from the nonprofit sector who also works in the field, by August. 

Andrews acknowledged community — particularly business owners’ — concerns that can come along with those living without shelter, but said the ordinance would, in effect, criminalize being homeless. 

She advocated for expansion of temporary beds in the short-term to offer quicker relief to the homeless and broader community — she noted several facilities, such as the Salvation Army’s 75 beds, are in transit —while investing long-term in permanent housing solutions. It is the lack of the latter that prevents Andrews from supporting Waddell’s proposed ordinance. 

“If you don’t have any place to put anybody, I don’t see how you can make it against the law to be homeless,” Andrews said. 

The Cape Fear Continuum of Care counts 500 people in the tri-county as homeless, nonprofits have repeated the assertion there are not enough beds to shelter those seeking it. Additionally, not all beds are equal — the city’s total temporary bed count is subdivided into specific populations (domestic violence victims) or barriers to entry (such as sobriety), thus further reducing the availability for an unsheltered person.

Andrews said Waddell’s statements on homelessness, addiction and mental illness are overblown. According to a 2022 annual report to Congress, 21% of those experiencing homelessness reported a serious mental illness and 16% reported a substance abuse disorder. These statistics do not represent the amount of people that started medicating or suffering with mental health as a result of their housing status.

Those working with the unsheltered have warned against measures aimed at criminalizing the homeless, noting it can prevent them from getting help and further burden municipalities’ detention facilities, in effect costing more money to the community.

Courts in Oregon and Idaho have ruled it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, thus a violation of the Eighth Amendment, to fine or jail someone for sleeping on public land when there is no shelter available. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing the matter. 

After New Hanover County passed its ordinance last year, the Wilmington Police Department reported to council that trespassing calls spiked. The county’s move was aimed at the downtown county-owned library and parking deck on Second Street, two hotspots for the homeless to rest. It also brought in an influx of complaints from the community due to the lack of cleanliness and concern for public safety. 

The Getting Home initiative — jointly funded by the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County — reported it’s been harder to find those people they were working with as they scattered to other reaches of the county. 

“I don’t ever want people to be pushed into the shadows and not feel as though they can get either the help that they need as a victim or the support that they need as somebody with mental illness or substance use disorder,” Joyner said. “I don’t ever want to be a part of making that more difficult to access.” 

Council members Clifford Barnett and Charlie Rivenbark, along with Mayor Bill Saffo, did not respond to PCD’s requests for comment.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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