Hunter bill spends $100K for homeless shelter




By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Thursday, March 14, 2019

State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, has filed legislation to help open a homeless shelter in Elizabeth City.

Filed Tuesday, House Bill 345 would appropriate $100,000 from the state's general fund to the city of Elizabeth City for renovating a homeless shelter. Hunter is the bill's primary sponsor, but it also has three cosponsors, including state Rep. Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, according to the General Assembly's website.

The legislation follows conversations between Hunter, Elizabeth City City Councilor Darius Horton, and city Mayor Bettie Parker. Hunter said in a phone interview Wednesday that he's followed Elizabeth City's efforts to open the shelter for months, and filed the bill at city officials' behest. He also strongly supports the cause, he added.

“We need to fix homelessness in North Carolina,” Hunter said.

Hunter also said he proposed $100,000 based on what City Manager Rich Olson has estimated it would cost to renovate a shelter.

Parker and Horton thanked Hunter for the legislation, even if it's uncertain it will pass the General Assembly.

Parker said she spoke with Hunter about the homeless shelter issue during a meeting in Hertford last week, and encouraged him to ask for $100,000. If lawmakers approved even part of that, it would be helpful, she said.

She also praised Hunter as “very empathetic” to the area's problem with homelessness.

Horton praised Hunter for staying attuned to Elizabeth City's needs, and applauded his willingness to introduce the bill.

Hunter's legislation lacks key details, at least for now. It makes no mention of whether and how the money would be overseen, nor does it put a limit on how much time Elizabeth City would have to spend it.

The city has discussed leasing the former public health department building on 311 Cedar Street as a homeless shelter, but that may not work out. Notably, city councilors voted this week to search for alternate sites — city-owned residential structures seized through tax foreclosure — that could be repurposed as shelters.

Hunter’s legislation also doesn't state any conditions under which the city would have to return the money, such as if the shelter closed shortly after opening, or impose any restrictions on whether the city could use the shelter for different purposes, or even sell it, after using state funds to improve it.

Asked about the bill’s oversight language, Hunter said he would leave that to legislative committees, who would have to review the bill before passage.

He reiterated his belief that appropriating money for a homeless shelter in Elizabeth City is a worthwhile cause, and noted lawmakers routinely seek funding for local priorities, including for recreation projects.

Hunter also said he plans to continue working with other lawmakers to get the project funded in some form.

Horton said he plans to lobby lawmakers to support the project as well.

Other state lawmakers might question why Elizabeth City should get funding for a shelter and not their own communities; Horton had a simple response to that.

“I would suggest they do the same thing as Rep. Hunter did,” and seek funding, Horton said.

Parker said lawmakers should support the funding as a way to prevent homelessness from getting worse in Elizabeth City.

“We don't want to wait until the problem is extreme to try to address it,” Parker said.

While the state funds social services and other programs that may help struggling people, Parker said she wasn't aware of the state having any direct involvement in homelessness. People sometimes prefer to overlook impoverished, vulnerable populations, she said.

“When you don't have anything to give, people tend to look away,” she said.