Response to homeless can define city's values


Sunday, November 4, 2018

Communities nationwide have discovered the benefits of investing in, salvaging and reviving their business districts, parks and other common areas. They've learned that citizens looking to relocate and businesses seeking a place to invest appreciate communities that value what they have -- including the people who live and work there.

Granted, there's an emphasis on potential economic benefit — as it should be. Economic prosperity makes it possible for communities to realize even more opportunities. Yet, wise leaders and citizens also are driven by how communities demonstrate their value for residents -- including those who live along the edges, many of whom are unable to manage without public assistance. That wisdom is simply that communities where people are more likely to act in capacities of caring for each, are more likely to attract like-minded people and to experience economic prosperity.

Along those lines, Elizabeth City’s citizens and leaders have a choice to make on whether a firm commitment to helping the city's homeless population is needed. Acknowledging the issues involved, pro and con, is necessary. But done objectively, without fear-driven rhetoric, a reasonable decision can be made.

Elizabeth City is a good example for illustrating the energy and resources directed toward reinvigorating downtowns. And, as we observe, that energy is growing thanks to a lot of people putting in the effort to make Elizabeth City something special, something better -- a place that others acknowledge in terms of its hospitality and a great place to be a part of what's going on.

That same energy and commitment also have been directed at boosting the opportunities of those less able. The Albemarle has a wealth of businesses and individuals who make sure Food Bank of the Albemarle, Habitat for Humanity, United Way-supported agencies and a host of other humanitarian services are fortified with resources or dollars or volunteers -- or all three.

Thanks to that community support and the giving spirit of the residents behind it, many needs are being filled. Accordingly, last week, Elizabeth City officials proposed creating a homeless shelter out of the currently vacant and former Albemarle Regional Health Services offices on Cedar Street. The building is owned by the citizens of Pasquotank County, and it's likely to be sold if it is not transformed into the proposed shelter.

The 11,000-square-foot building, city officials say, could house an eight-occupant shelter. In addition, the building could accommodate the SOULS ministry, which now feeds the homeless and others at the former Elizabeth City Middle School.

City council and the county commissioners are discussing their options. The city earlier had set aside $50,000 to fund a shelter. Renovations needed would cost $100,000, and it will take regular funding, whether public or private — and probably volunteers — to operate the shelter. The city is asking the county to lease the building for a minimal cost and to share the renovation expense. Finally, if it does forward, the city must hire a quality operator, and, should the operator fail, be prepared to take responsibility for closing the facility in an orderly, humane manner, and to bear the costs of doing so.

While those matters have to be addressed, apparently they are not the only challenges. In fact, the greater challenge may be convincing leaders and residents that it should be done.

Already, some councilors have raised the potential of residents' negative reaction to the shelter. Anita Hummer, whose constituents live in the 2nd Ward, where the proposed shelter would be located, said she’s received calls from residents "very angry" about the location. Hummer raised the issues of mental health and substance abuse sometimes associated with the homeless. Jeannie Young, of the 1st Ward, termed the location as "problematic." Hummer added that staffing and maintaining the shelter is "a big responsibility."

It is a big responsibility, and officials and the public have to be committed to it. We'd urge officials and the public to weigh in on the proposal. Also, fear-driven arguments that might feed local objections need to be researched. Are there real concerns for the public? What have other homeless shelters experienced?

While these issues need to be examined, leaders and citizens must consider as well the other implications of maintaining a shelter. How the public responds to the plight of the homeless and needy in any community reflects on the collective character of the people in that community. We think a positive approach to helping the homeless is another way to convince businesses and potential residents that this is a community that cares about its citizens and quality of life. Accordingly,what becomes of the shelter proposal will reveal something about the city’s core values.