The good news is that the Catherine Barber Memorial Homeless Shelter board has found a new temporary shelter location, plus it has opportunities for a new permanent site.

Shelter board member Carmen Decker shared this update during the Sept. 17 county commissioners meeting. He said the board should soon be able to announce the temporary location.

The bad news is that owners of the current shelter site at 86 Sparta Road and the shelter board couldn’t work out an agreement for the shelter to be there a few more months. It will therefore cease being the homeless shelter at the end of this month, as directed by owners of the property.

Additional bad news is the difficulty the shelter board has had finding a temporary shelter site, especially in North Wilkesboro and Wilkesboro. Decker said this could result in a brief period (a week or so) between closing the Sparta Road and opening a temporary shelter site.

The homeless shelter should be centrally located, which means Wilkesboro or North Wilkesboro. Decker said county government’s assistance in securing a Wilkes Transportation Authority van stop near the temporary site is needed, indicating it isn’t in one of the two towns.

It shouldn’t be so hard to find a site for a homeless shelter – temporary or not — in Wilkesboro or North Wilkesboro.

Shelter board members said Wilkesboro officials told them that because the town’s zoning ordinance doesn’t address homeless shelters, it would take at least three months to get a ruling if they requested approval of a site for a shelter there. That would mean at least three months without a homeless shelter, plus who knows what kind of road blocks town officials might throw up.

Even if the shelter board doesn’t request approval of a site in that town, Wilkesboro officials should go ahead and identify under what conditions homeless shelters are allowed by amending the town’s zoning ordinance instead of leaving this uncertain.

Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro officials need similar zoning and other land use restrictions, but Wilkesboro shouldn’t go as far as North Wilkesboro in limiting possible locations of homeless shelters.

An amendment to North Wilkesboro’s zoning ordinance, approved in May 2018, made it virtually impossible to locate a homeless shelter in that town. The amendment says they can’t be within 250 feet of any property zoned or used for residential purposes and requires that homeless shelters have direct access to a public sidewalk. Homeless shelters also are only allowed in areas zoned “highway business.”

The homeless shelter at 86 Sparta Road is less than 250 feet from residential property and lacks access to a sidewalk, but it doesn’t have to meet the requirements at this site because it was there when the amendments were approved.

The sidewalk access requirement is especially limiting because so many North Wilkesboro streets and roads lack sidewalks, including many that need them.

The North Wilkesboro commissioners approved the amendment addressing homeless shelters soon after the Boone-based Hospitality House of Northwest North Carolina indicated interest in using the former women’s detention center on Boston Avenue as a homeless shelter. Hospitality House is a housing-focused crisis assistance nonprofit in Boone that serves Wilkes and seven other area counties.

Boston Avenue has a sidewalk, but it isn’t clear if the nearest of six residential parcels on dead end Pearson Street (off Boston Avenue) is as close as 250 feet from the former women’s detention center parcel.

The former detention center is zoned “office-institutional” and would have to be rezoned “highway business” to be a homeless shelter. When the Barber Homeless Shelter board asked about using the currently  vacant facility as a temporary homeless shelter earlier this month, the board was told that it needed a sprinkler system to meet the fire code.

Despite these hurdles, the former detention center isn’t being used and appears to be an obvious choice for a homeless shelter. It was deeded by county government to the town several years ago and was briefly considered as a new North Wilkesboro Fire Station. If it was a detention center for many years (first for juveniles and later for women) and later was considered for a fire station, why couldn’t it be a homeless shelter?

Meanwhile, the only homeless shelter within Wilkes County still faces an uncertain future.

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