Considering concerns about a proposed new site of the Catherine H. Barber Homeless Shelter on Sparta Road in North Wilkesboro and the worsening problem of homelessness in Wilkes County, here’s an idea.

The elected governing bodies of North Wilkesboro, Wilkesboro or Wilkes County need to partner with the shelter board by donating publicly-owned land for a new and larger homeless shelter. All three local governments own property that would suit this purpose.

Last week, North Wilkesboro commissioners made a 17-acre town-owned parcel on Second Street available by officially dropping plans for building a facility to house the town’s fire and police departments there.

A homeless shelter could be built on one of several parcels owned by Wilkesboro south of downtown, including a 5.40-acre former nursing home property.

There are several potential building sites near the Wilkes County Courthouse on undeveloped portions (around 100 acres) of the county-owned Call property, bought primarily to provide a courthouse site.

Donating publicly-owned property for a new and larger homeless shelter would address multiple public concerns related to the growing problem of homelessness — and make building a new shelter more affordable for the Barber shelter board.

It might seem that an existing house should be considered as a shelter site, but renovations needed to meet code requirements for group quarters make this cost prohibitive. It would need to be fully handicapped accessible and have a sprinkler system, electrical upgrades – and the list goes on. The existing shelter is in a former residence, but is “grandfathered” from having to meet these requirements.

Meanwhile, the homeless shelter board’s plans for building a new 40-bed shelter for $500,000 on a vacant lot for sale next to Beulah Presbyterian Church (a few hundred feet from the current 11-bed shelter) are opposed by a sizable number of residents and other property owners in North Wilkesboro’s Fairplains community.

After hearing opposition for over an hour Tuesday night in a meeting of shelter board members and about 25 concerned citizens at Beulah, board member Dan Huffman prudently said his board would vote Monday night on whether to continue pursuit of the 1.60-acre lot next to Beulah as a shelter site. This includes buying the property and securing a conditional use permit from the town allowing a homeless shelter there. This is needed because the property is zoned commercial.

The need for a larger homeless shelter in Wilkes is apparent. The Barber shelter provided temporary housing for nearly 200 different people for a total of about 2,000 bed nights in 2018, up from about 1,400 bed nights the prior year. Huffman said the shelter must turn people away some nights, but on other nights isn’t full. Wilkes needs a homeless shelter that can serve entire families, in addition to larger capacity. It needs a shelter with space for job counseling and other services.

Simultaneously, there are legitimate concerns in Fairplains about unwanted visitors sleeping in yards and liquor bottles, beer cans, clothes, hypodermic needles and other items left on private property. A Beulah Presbyterian spokesman said he cleans up after people defecate in the church yard and that homeless people often seek money from the church, which has a small membership and very limited resources.

Huffman, who grew up in Fairplains and has close relatives there, said the shelter board wasn’t aware of these problems until people opposed to the board’s plans to build a new shelter on the site next to Beulah spoke up. He also questioned if homeless people served by the Barber shelter are causing the problems.

Mary Smith, Barber shelter director and daughter of shelter founder and namesake Catherine Barber, said in the meeting Tuesday that the shelter shouldn’t be where it isn’t wanted.

Homeless shelter board members and opponents of the proposed new shelter site agree that people being treated for opioid addiction at the North Wilkesboro Comprehensive Treatment Center and Mountain Health Solutions at nearby Northview Plaza are part of the problem.

The intrusions on private property rights that Fairplains residents described are unacceptable. No one should have to put up with these problems. However, there is still the issue of needing a larger shelter to better address homelessness in Wilkes.

During the meeting Tuesday, both sides asked the other, “What would Jesus do?” We won’t presume to answer that question, but a donation of local government-owned property as a new shelter site would go a long way toward addressing this dilemma.

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