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City seeks county lease on shelter building

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Elizabeth City City Council took a “baby step” towards opening a new homeless shelter Tuesday night, but only after a tense debate and arguments over whether racial bias factored into opposition to the facility.

In a 4-3 vote, councilors approved asking Pasquotank County to lease the former health department building at 311 Cedar St. for a homeless shelter. That approval will also require going to the Zoning Board of Adjustments to ask permission to use the building as a shelter, city staff reported.

In favor were Councilors Darius Horton, Gabriel Adkins, Johnnie Walton and Kem Spence. Opposed were Councilors Anita Hummer, Billy Caudle and Jeannie Young.

The city supported reopening a homeless shelter months ago, approving $50,000 to help reopen the shelter at 709 Herrington Road. Subsequently, City Manager Rich Olson reported the house needed too much in repairs, and 311 Cedar St. was the city's only immediate option for a shelter.

However, several things would have to happen before the city could use the building, Olson explained Tuesday. Pasquotank County owns the building and would have to lease it to the city at minimal cost. Then the county and city would have to get a special use permit to run a homeless shelter there. Then, the city would have to spend $100,000 or more to renovate the building, a figure that includes installing a kitchen and showers so people can live there, even if only temporarily.

The shelter faced opposition even before councilors spoke on it Tuesday, as citizens Steve and Jill Changary warned against it during a public comment period. Steve Changary warned “all Hell broke loose” when another community he lived in opened a shelter, as it drew more homeless people than it could house, and fostered serious crime. Jill Changary questioned how the city could afford the project, which she labeled as Horton's “pet project.”

While Horton first proposed reopening the shelter, he denied it was a pet project. Responding to the Changarys and broader public opposition, Horton argued the shelter is needed and would be properly run.

“Currently there's no place for the homeless to go,” Horton said. He continued it would be an emergency, temporary shelter that would help people find work and, if needed, get help with drug abuse or mental health problems.

Horton also suggested racial bias factored into opposition to the shelter; there were fewer opponents when it was on Herrington Road, a black neighborhood, he said.

“Now somebody may say, 'well, the most people that are homeless are African Americans, so we want to put it in an African American community,' but when we try to put it in another community that's not mainly African American, now it becomes a problem,” Horton said.

Hummer responded there was “nothing racist about” opposing the shelter. She instead argued council lacked enough information about the proposal, including how much it would actually cost and how the city would afford it.

“There are so many unknowns in this,” Hummer said. “Council hasn't seen the proposal, the person's name that's going to run it, their history, nothing, none of that.”

City staff solicited offers from homeless shelter operators earlier this year, and the nonprofit Divine Outreach Inspiration, whose leadership includes Lisa Dixon and Wanda Green, submitted a proposal in August. DIO has not presented to the city council, but its proposal has been public record. Olson has also said the group is qualified to run the shelter.

Asked later about the proposal, Hummer said she had not formally requested it, but said city staff should have provided it to her by now.

Hummer lives on Cedar Street, but in a followup call Wednesday, she said her proximity to the potential shelter wasn’t a factor in opposing it.

Councilor Billy Caudle shared Hummer's cost concerns, and argued the health department building is simply too big and is in a “terrible state of repair.”

Caudle also noted the $50,000 the city set aside was to support operating costs, not renovate the facility. The city doesn’t have enough money to do both, he argued.

“If we fix this up, and then they walk, what do we have?” Caudle said. “We have an 11,000-square-foot building, we have sunk a bunch of money in it, and we have no operator and we haven't helped the first homeless person.”

Olson has suggested Pasquotank share in renovation costs, but it has not agreed to do so.

Caudle also called for reconsidering repairs to 709 Herrington Road, which he said could be a faster, more affordable solution, despite Olson advising against trying to repair it.

Young agreed with Caudle and Hummer, adding that 311 Cedar St., had black mold, a health hazard that's costly to treat, she said. She argued the city could help the homeless in cheaper ways, such as through providing vouchers for brief lodging through extreme temperatures. She also noted that, even if the council agreed now to use 311 Cedar St., getting it permitted and renovated would take months – meaning it could not help the homeless this winter.

Caudle and Young also rejected Horton's claim that race factored into the shelter’s opposition.

Walton and Spence supported Horton, and suggested concerns about cost were premature. Horton's motion, as recommended by city staff, was only to see if 311 Cedar St., would be permitted to be a shelter, they noted.

“Let's take a baby step. We don't even want to take the baby step,” Walton said.

Arguing the shelter could be life-changing for its residents, he also said, “I don't care how big that building is,” and the council should not “procrastinate” further on the issue.

Walton also asked Olson about the building. Olson said the entire building was too big for a homeless shelter, but part of the building could “fairly easily” be converted into a shelter. However, he said the county would most likely ask the city to lease the entire building.

Spence supported using only part of the building, arguing that could lower the costs of renovation.

Adkins, who seconded Horton's motion, urged the council to try to help the homeless. He said he often sees homeless people, including sleeping on vacant lots on Ehringhaus Street, and argued the council needs to look out for them.

“Any moment, we could lose all we have and need somewhere to go, and nothing is available,” he said. “This is a problem we need to stop running from.”

Hummer also said the public needed more information and more opportunity to comment on the shelter. The Board of Zoning Adjustments should offer one such opportunity, as City Attorney Bill Morgan told the council the board would hold a public hearing if and when it considers granting the special use permit.

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