Statements by parties involved indicate that negotiations for keeping the only homeless shelter in Wilkes County from losing its current location by Oct. 1 are gridlocked.
Betty Byrd, owner of the house at 86 Sparta Road (N.C. 18 North) that has been the Catherine H. Barber Memorial Homeless Shelter for most of three decades, said Thursday morning that the 11 homeless shelter board members were invited to a meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the shelter, but none showed up.
“We did set the meeting for (Wednesday) at 5 to grant their extension,” said Byrd. “We were there at 5 but no one showed up to get the extension.”
Byrd said she called Bud Smith, a shelter board member, Monday to set up the meeting. “Bud said, ‘Fine, that’s good with me and I’ll let everyone (on the board) know.’ But evidently they decided they didn’t need the extension.”
Byrd said that at the meeting, she had planned to offer to extend the lease to March 1 or April 1, 2020. “I was willing to discuss it, because they asked earlier if I would go through the winter months, and that’s what we had discussed doing.” Byrd added that she planned to leave the lease payments at $250 per month.
“I think it’s a closed matter at this point,” continued Byrd. “We have reached out and tried. I know nothing else to do.” She said she assumed the board members didn’t attend because they had found another shelter site.
Dan Huffman, a member of the shelter board, said Thursday morning that he and other board members didn’t attend the meeting Wednesday because they didn’t want to sign an agreement the Byrd family said had to be signed before a lease extension could be discussed.
Huffman said the shelter board still hasn’t secured a temporary shelter location elsewhere.
“They wanted all 11 of us to sign a paper saying we were mutually dissolving the homeless shelter,” explained Huffman. “They wanted it signed before they would agree to discuss anything further. So, we’re not doing that because we could be signing something and then she could add anything to (the lease terms).”
When asked if he thought negotiations were over, Huffman said, “Not necessarily. I would be glad to meet and talk with her (Byrd), just one on one. We don’t know whether it’s a closed matter or not, but we’re going forward. We’re fundraising, trying to move forward, and just trying to do the right thing.”
Huffman added, “I want her to know there’s no hard feelings. We so much appreciate what she and her (late) husband (Carl Byrd) have done for us over the years. I just really don’t know why they’re now against having a homeless shelter (at 86 Sparta Road).”
Over the past two and a half years, according to Huffman, the shelter board has paid for about $50,000 in improvements to the homeless shelter, including new windows, new roof, new heat pump, new hot water heater and remodeled bathroom. Having done all those upgrades, he said, the board is “just a little frustrated” at receiving the eviction notice.
Huffman’s comments were supported by board member Carmen Decker, who addressed the North Wilkesboro commissioners Tuesday night.
Commissioner Debbie Ferguson, who was on the homeless shelter board for five years, asked Decker if there was any chance of negotiating with the landlord to extend the lease, even for a short term.
Decker said, “We’ve met and talked with them, but the conditions they presented to us were just not tenable, given that they wouldn’t give us any particular conditions of extension, price, and those sorts of things. I’m not suggesting that it’s completely over, but I’m not sure where that’s going to go.”
Commissioner Joe Johnston asked Decker if the landlord made new demands on the lease, creating an impasse.
Decker replied, “I wouldn’t call them demands. They offered us conditions that they wanted all 11 board members to sign before they would basically tell us what extension they would give us. All I can say is that it was more about how we would talk about this in public. When we knew we had to sign that first, before we knew what they would give us, we said no. That makes no sense at all. That’s ridiculous.”
Decker said the shelter board’s written lease with the landlord expired a few years ago, and since then the board has paid rent on a month-to-month basis without a written lease. Town Attorney Gary Vannoy said that under those circumstances, the landlord would be required to give the shelter a 10-day eviction notice.
Mary Smith, shelter director and daughter of shelter founder and namesake Catherine Barber, told the commissioners Tuesday that the board has looked at several possible new locations in the town, but none meet requirements of the town’s 2018 homeless shelter zoning amendment, which states that a shelter can’t be built closer than 250 feet to a residence and must have access to a public sidewalk.
“Perhaps the commissioners would be willing to ease some of these requirements,” she said. “With cooler weather coming quickly, we are very concerned there will be no place for those who need shelter. So, we are asking for your help to find a temporary location for us as we continue to work toward building a new shelter.”
Smith said the former Women’s Detention Center on Boston Avenue is unoccupied, and “even though its location doesn’t meet all the requirements of the zoning. Surely, we can use it on a temporary basis. Hopefully you will consider our situation.”
The detention center closed in 2014 when a new and much larger county jail opened next to the county courthouse in Wilkesboro. The county deeded the women’s detention center property to the Town of North Wilkesboro at no cost in 2016.
Decker told the commissioners that the eviction notice “puts us in an emergency situation. We must move; we don’t have a choice. We need to find a new temporary facility immediately. That’s our first priority now—we have to put the larger facility, in a sense, on the back burner.”
He added, “We don’t think we can do it ourselves…. We need your help, and Wilkesboro’s help, and the county’s help.”
Decker asked where the homeless would go after the shelter closes Sept. 30. “They go to that ‘tent city’ (near the town water tower on Second Street). They’re going to stay down in the shopping center where the (methadone treatment) center is (at Northview Plaza) Fairplains. If they think they have a problem now, it is going to really start to have some issues before this somehow moderates itself. We ask you for that help, and we ask you to consider this seriously.”
Decker said money raised for a new shelter could also be used for a temporary shelter. As of Thursday, $131,500 had been raised on the crowdfunding site. A fundraising goal of $500,000 is listed on the site.
The shelter board was notified in an Aug. 27 letter from Byrd that it must vacate the premises by Oct. 1. The letter said, “It has come to my attention that my smaller facility often sees your ministry in a dilemma of being unable to provide adequate sleeping arrangements for those in need of your help, as board members have stated publicly.
“I have determined that my facility can no longer meet your growing needs in your mission to assist the homeless community of Wilkes County and would be better suited to a smaller nonprofit that better fits my values and vision for the community.”
The “smaller nonprofit” referred to in the letter as a future tenant of the building would ideally be one that helps children, Byrd said Monday.
Plans to build a new, larger homeless shelter at 108 Sparta Road were derailed on Aug. 22, when the North Wilkesboro Zoning Board of Adjustment denied the shelter board’s request for two zoning variances and a conditional use permit needed for the shelter to be built on the 1.6-acre site, which is next to Beulah Presbyterian Church.