City seeks talks with county on homelessness


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, January 9, 2017

Homelessness is a big problem that Elizabeth City and Pasquotank County officials need to work together to fix, Mayor Joe Peel and city councilors agreed last week.

City officials have been discussing homelessness lately because of the Visions of Hope homeless shelter on 709 Herrington Road. The shelter had to shut down months ago following a bedbug infestation, and it couldn't afford to pay the $1,700 exterminator bill.

During Thursday’s meeting of the City Council Finance Committee, the panel recommended the full council approve covering the exterminator bill without reducing the $5,000 grant the city awarded the shelter to cover its utility bills.

City Manager Rich Olson said the city should be able to find the $1,700 from savings in its budget. 

The bigger question for city officials is what to do about Elizabeth City’s overall homeless problem. The Visions of Hope shelter is operated by only two women, Helen Williams and Rita Bowe — “out of the goodness of their hearts,” Peel said — and can only house about eight women.

Councilor Ray Donnelly noted he and other councilors have long been aware of a homeless man living along the waterfront. He doesn't cause trouble, as far as Donnelly knows, but he's often there.

Peel and councilors said they believe Pasquotank County has an obligation to help with the problem. Finance Committee  members called for the city and county to discuss homelessness at their next city-county meeting.

“I think it's a bigger item than just, 'can we find $1,700?'” Peel said. “I mean, we have a problem in the town and the county that's not being addressed, and that's homelessness … and they need to be part of the solution.”

Peel's comments followed arguments by other councilors, particularly Second Ward Councilor Tony Stimatz, that the county has a responsibility to help with homelessness. Helping with homelessness is an extension of the safety net services the county provides through its Department of Social Services, Stimatz said.

Pasquotank Board of Commissioners Chairman Bill Sterritt, who also serves on the DSS Board of Directors, said in an interview Friday that more people would be homeless without the many services DSS provides, such as home-heating assistance, food stamps and other vital services. DSS is funded by a combination of county, state and federal dollars, he noted.

While noting he was not speaking for other commissioners, Sterritt welcomed discussing further help for the homeless.

Sterritt said the city and county need to know the “magnitude” of the need before officials determine what that assistance should look like.

“There needs to be a lot of discussion,” Sterritt said.

Even the several thousand dollars Elizabeth City has spent on Visions of Hope has come with some reluctance.

Olson advised the council two years ago to sell the house the shelter uses, rather than allow Visions of Hope to use it without firm sources of funding.

City councilors have also supported Visions of Hope as a cheaper alternative to the city's own shelter. Operating a standalone shelter would cost the city around $120,000 a year if not more, Olson estimated. The revenue needed would equate to just over one cent of the city's property tax rate.

Asked if the city should consider operating its own homeless shelter, Olson said homelessness is a complex problem. It often requires providing a lot of mental health services, he said. He added the lack of access to mental health care is a statewide “crisis” that falls not only on shelters, but on law enforcement as well.

He said Visions of Hope does a good job of connecting people to resources, such as housing assistance, health services, job training and more. However, telling people about resources and getting them to use them are two different things, he said.

In an interview Friday, Williams said Visions of Hope should reopen soon. In the meantime, it's referred people needing shelter to other programs, such as local churches’ Room in the Inn program.

When it's open, the Visions of Hope shelter is constantly full, Williams said. She also welcomed any support the city, county or the public can provide. Donations of household items, volunteer labor and financial donations all help the shelter, she said.

For more information on the shelter, Williams can be reached at 252-916-8362.