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Washington law firm steps in to help small town homeless shelter in North Wilkesboro
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Washington law firm steps in to help small town homeless shelter in North Wilkesboro

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NORTH WILKESBORO — The Catherine H. Barber Memorial Homeless Shelter — the only one in Wilkes County — is, for now, much like the people it serves: out of sight, out of mind, unwanted and unloved by local officials.

In the past 18 months, the shelter has been evicted from its former home of nearly 30 years, turned down in its bid to build its own space and denied a conditional-use permit that would have allowed it to move into a donated building despite meeting every pre-condition laid out.

“I don’t think they want us in town where they can see (the homeless),” said Elizabeth Huffman, the chair of the shelter’s board of directors.

The proof is in the balloting: The North Wilkesboro Board of Adjustment voted unanimously last month to deny a conditional-use request.

But the battle is far from over. Last week, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian/civil liberties law firm in Washington D.C., filed a federal lawsuit challenging that decision.

“Nobody wants a lawsuit,” Huffman said. “But when we’ve met the requirements and (town officials) didn’t follow the law, you have no choice.”

Time of need

For the time being, the shelter will remain where it’s been since October 2019 — on the second floor of the Crossfire United Methodist Church on the far side of U.S. 421.

Crossfire, a self-styled biker church housed in a former egg-processing plant, makes no bones about where it stands. A mission statement prominently displayed on its front door makes clear that all are welcome, no matter her (or his) station in life or whatever struggles have presented themselves.

“We are committed to reach out to our neighbor and help them in their time of need,” the sign reads.

The proof of that sits upstairs along a long hallway upstairs from the sanctuary. Tidy living spaces for women and children at one end and men at another have been built.

A dayroom, an office and a kitchen — with a microwave but no stove or oven — separate sleeping quarters. A washer and dryer are tucked in a nook in the hall.

Every room has an ample supply of hand sanitizer and carries a pleasant, fresh-scrubbed smell. COVID-19 spares no one.

“The church has been very welcoming and understanding,” Huffman said. “They’ve told us we can stay as long as we need and there’s no pressure.

“But they want to grow, too. The church has plans for the building.”

Homelessness in rural communities is very different from that seen — or experienced — in urban areas such as Winston-Salem.

Panhandling and roadside campsites are far less visible in the country. There’s more couch surfing and car sleeping, and less demand for overnight shelter simply because of smaller population.

Still, regardless of circumstance, homelessness is very real no matter the locale.

For some, basic human needs — food, water and security — are hard enough to come by without having to worry about a roof overhead.

Concerns about finding steady work or keeping a family together are eased, if only a little and merely temporarily, by knowing there is a place to lay one’s head, get a hot meal and wash clothes.

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The shelter has room for 20, and its occupancy varies by the season. Colder weather increases demand; it’s a brutal proposition.

Unemployment, which stood at 7.5% over the summer in Wilkes County, is bound to go up as COVID-19 continues its rampage through the economy.

“Homelessness is not as visible here,” Huffman said. “But it exists and most likely it will get worse.”

And as it does, so will the need for Catherine H. Barber Memorial Homeless Shelter. No matter where it’s located.

“It’s still nice out,” Huffman said. “We operate 365 days a year, open 6:30 (p.m.) to 6:30 (a.m.).

Helping hand?

A generous offer made by Dr. Christopher Roberts to donate a two-story building that formerly housed his dental practice seemed a perfect solution to worries over the shelter’s future.

The building, near the intersection of Elkin Highway and N.C. 18, is ideal. Because it’s closer into town, the location would put clients nearer to essential services — job banks, governmental offices, transportation and places to eat.

A Godsend, in other words, offered free of charge that would provide a hand up to those in need of one.

Then the Board of Adjustment entered, armed with a large bucket of very cold water to douse warm, fleeting feelings of goodwill.

The requirements set out by local ordinance are straightforward enough: A homeless shelter must be in a district zoned for highway/industrial use, it can’t be within 250 feet of residences and must have a sidewalk.

All of those conditions were met by the shelter. Even Lisa Casey, the chairwoman of the North Wilkesboro Board of Adjustment, admitted that much.

“I think the issue here is that it meets the zoning requirements, but that doesn’t mean it belongs here,” Casey said.

Familiar refrains about property values and public safety were floated. Board member Otis Church, the Wilkes Journal-Patriot reported, said, “You step out at 6:30 in the morning, and all that traffic and everything — it’s dangerous, and they step right out into the main street.”

As if homeless people aren’t smart enough to watch for traffic. It’s shameful.

By the way, this is the second time that the Board of Adjustment has stepped on the shelter’s plans. In August 2019, the board denied requests for zoning variances and a conditional-use permit that would have allowed the shelter to build a new home next to a church.

Anyone following those decisions might reasonably conclude that the North Wilkesboro, through the actions of its Board of Adjustment, has a problem with the homeless — and those trying to help them.

But the Institute for Justice provided last week a glimmer of hope. Because it's a property-rights issue — in addition to being a human-decency issue — lawyers for the libertarian organization filed a suit challenging the decision to protect the rights of private property owners.

“The principles of this case affect Americans everywhere,” said Alexa Gervasi, an Institute attorney, in a prepared statement. “Allowing the Board’s decision here to stand paves the way for zoning boards to invent irrational reasons to deny any applicant their permit, regardless of their proposed use.”

Help when it was least expected. “They found us,” Huffman said. “They said they might be able to help. And they could. We plan to sit tight until (the suit) is resolved.”

Maybe the prospect of expensive litigation might cause North Wilkesboro officials to reconsider. Or maybe someone will re-read relevant verses from the Book of Matthew.

“Did I give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and the prisoner?”

Or did I deny them (twice) a conditional use permit?

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@scottsextonwsj

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