Elizabeth City officials plan to re-examine the city’s homeless voucher program after Councilor Michael Brooks told fellow councilors this week the program may be being abused.
Brooks told City Council on Monday that he’s learned people from outside Pasquotank County are using a voucher to stay in a local motel used by the program, and that some of those people are actually “street walkers and drug dealers” taking advantage of the program.
Brooks supports the concept of the voucher program but said the program needs new “ground rules” and better “monitoring” and wants the police department to brief council on the program to make sure the city “isn’t aiding and abetting” persons committing crimes.
The city began the program Dec. 1, providing vouchers to homeless persons to stay the night at a city motel during cold weather. The Elizabeth City Police Department oversees the issuing of vouchers.
In his weekly memo to the mayor and City Council on Friday, City Manager Rich Olson said the program had issued 139 vouchers to persons presenting themselves as homeless to city police since it began last December. He said a total of 21 men and 14 women had used the program, and that their ages ranged from 21-62 for the men and 19-71 for the women. As of Friday afternoon, the city had spent $7,554.45 on the program, he said.
Olson said the program was set up to direct homeless people first to the faith-based Room in the Inn program, and then to the Queen Elizabeth motel when Room in the Inn’s spaces were full. Before Room at the Inn closed on Feb. 2, it served 53 homeless people, Olson said.
He described the program’s operation as successful, noting that police reported only one incident that resulted in the arrest of a participant and the voiding of their voucher.
Brooks, however, suggested earlier in the week that council may need to retool the program.
“It has come to my attention that someone said, and it is heartbreaking in a way, that with the vouchers for the homeless that you have people coming from Virginia, and other counties, using those vouchers,” he said. “Are we giving them a free ticket to set up an operation in a hotel room that the city is paying for? We need to have some supervision. We have people taking advantage of a good thing we are trying to do for the homeless. If this information that has been given to me is incorrect, I will stand corrected.”
Olson said that there are some individuals that may be abusing the system.
“I am not saying they are doing anything criminal, but we are tracking individuals who use the homeless vouchers,” he said.
Brooks asked whether the city could restrict the vouchers to local homeless persons. Olson, however, said there may be some legal issues that would prevent the city from putting that type of restriction on the program.
Councilor Darius Horton said he supports looking into any possible illegal activities but does not support putting residency restrictions on the program.
“A person that is homeless doesn’t have an address,” Horton said. “They are homeless. So, the question is, if it is snowing outside and someone got here from Hertford, they are technically homeless. Do we say, “Oh no, since you used to live in Hertford and you are now in Elizabeth City you can’t take advantage of the voucher program.’ We need to look at this program as a whole and possibly iron out some of our procedures.’’
Olson said city police Chief Eddie Buffaloe will provide council with a review of the program during its upcoming retreat next week. Buffaloe may also make recommendations on ways the program could be improved for next year, he said.
Council’s retreat will be held in the boardroom at Sentara Albemarle Medical Center Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.