In recent weeks, the New Hanover County Commission considered changing the local ordinance to allow law enforcement to impose fines on people who are homeless and who occupy county properties. The ordinance further permitted law enforcement to remove people from the area and impose criminal charges. To say I was disappointed with the NHC Commissioners for even considering such an approach is an understatement.
One justification provided was that this would further enable law enforcement to protect the public, as there were incidences of violence at the public library downtown, a location where people who are homeless are known to congregate. The problem is that laws already exist to enable law enforcement to address such issues. Whatever the spin, justification, or rationalization, this was nothing more than an attempt to criminalize being homeless. It is an example of how easy it is to obfuscate that objective and further marginalize vulnerable populations by turning to reactive and emotional appeals to "public safety.”
To me, this ordinance was nothing more than providing a means to allow law enforcement to remove the problem from sight. If we don't have to see it, we don't have to do anything. Regrettably, so much of government resources are spent on managing the appearance of resolving issues, not on making the hard decisions and doing the hard work to fix them. It is easier to build a Potemkin Village and kick the can.
I’m pleased that the County Commissioners ultimately opted not to pass this ordinance. I implore the County Commissioners to use their time and resources to take meaningful action to address the many issues that result in our community members experiencing homelessness. These solutions must be based on data and facts. They need to be thoughtful, intentional, and evidence-based.
Where do we go from here?
Let me be clear: Addressing homelessness is an enormous task and is not something that the New Hanover County government can resolve on its own. As an initial matter, we do not really know how big the problem is. Each year, as a requirement for receiving federal funding, the Tri-County Homeless Interagency Council conducts a Point In Time count of the individuals that are homeless in New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender Counties. Through this process, policymakers can gain important information – from those they can find and engage – to gain a rough count of the total number of people experiencing homelessness and extrapolate demographic information about the population. While this information is helpful, we know that it is doubtful to accurately count the total number of people experiencing homelessness.
There are numerous initiatives underway to provide access to affordable housing. For example, the Continuum of Care (CoC) Coordinated Entry System is a standardized, transparent process that prioritizes access to limited affordable housing options for those most in need. There are myriad government funding programs such as housing vouchers and rental assistance programs. New Hanover County has committed to investing $15 million over the next 5 years to increase the supply of affordable housing in the community. Cape Fear Collective is purchasing housing to maintain the availability of such accommodation below the ever-increasing market rate, ensuring it remains affordable. Additionally, Eden Village of Wilmington is a highly innovative initiative to provide housing and supportive services for people that experience chronic homelessness. And we have many incredible nonprofit, community-based organizations, like the Good Shephard Center, that provide shelter, transitional housing, and other critical services and supports.
All this to say, so many things are happening to address homelessness in the community. We still have a long way to go, and the current state of the housing market is significantly exasperating this problem. In March, housing prices were up 15% over 2021 and almost 27% over 2020. Further, the active listing count (meaning the houses available to buy) was down nearly 19% in the same period. What does that mean? Well, it means that there isn’t that much out there to buy and what is out there is much more expensive than it would have been a year ago. I've personally been on both sides of this situation in the last 60 days. After it was listed for less than two days, I sold my house at a price well above asking. And then I tried to go buy a new one. The operative word here is "tried."
As a result of what I refer to as "the crazy," we will rent. Sounds easy, right? Nope. Same problem. The minute a rental property becomes available, it's off the market. And the rent? Thousands of dollars above what real estate entities like Zillow identify as the market rate. The problem is so much worse in the market of housing options that qualify and accept payment from programs that make them affordable for people with low incomes.
We have a supply problem, which further exacerbates our affordability problem. Unfortunately, the answer isn't as simple as building more. Because we are running out of places to build on. We also happen to have a supply chain and workforce problem. So, getting the building done is much more difficult, even if there is land to build on.
And so, you've reached this point in the article and think, excellent, the solutions, she has them. I don't. And that is the point of this article. First, to address the issue, we must first and foremost confront it (see the first part of the article). Second, I challenge us all to recognize that the problems we face in our community, such as homelessness, are complicated and complex. There isn't an easy button to fix what is before us. Out of sight, out of mind is not a solution. We must recognize that we all have a role to play (yes, that means things like paying taxes to fund solutions) because we all benefit from the solution. We must challenge policymakers who present simple explanations and easy solutions. I, for one, expect much more from our governing officials.
There are also organizations out there with good ideas for solutions. For that, I point you to them.
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