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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Neighborhood pushes back on proposed day shelter for homeless, organizers look to new location

A partnership of four faith-based groups planned to open a day shelter this past week at 425 S. Fourth St. but pushback from neighbors and from the congregation at the church has put the plans on pause. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Plans to open a downtown day shelter to serve the homeless population have come to a halt. 

Concerns from neighbors in the South Fourth Street area, as well as within the church congregations utilizing the building, have caused the partnership of pastors organizing the shelter to rethink its location.

READ MORE: ‘Collaborative spirit’: Groups unite to launch day shelter for homeless downtown

A preliminary soft opening was scheduled for Thursday at 425 S. Fourth St. within the Holy Ghost Deliverance Prayer Center of Wilmington. However, that will no longer be happening; the coalition leading the initiative have voluntarily chosen to look elsewhere,

The partnership of Hope Recovery United Methodist Church, The Anchor United Methodist Church, Living Hope Street Ministry and The Feast Gathering is not giving up though. The partners have been collaborating over the past six-plus months to offer services to the unsheltered, including a warm meal and shower, and to host a place of respite from living on the streets.

Pastor Meg McBride said internal pushback from The Anchor UMC membership, who have been gathering at the church since 2019, has caused the group to reevaluate its plans.

Also, 21 homeowners living on Church and Fourth streets, in close proximity to the property, sent a letter March 1 to Mayor Bill Saffo, Wilmington City Council, city attorney Meredith Everhart and New Hanover County Commissioners from. It asked the government officials to “halt the problematic plan to use a vacant church building” in the residential neighborhood as a day shelter.

The two-page correspondence outlines several concerns regarding the “qualifications, capabilities and resources” to use the building for homeless refuge. The plan was to open the shelter from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays only, with the goal to expand as resources become available.

The residents noted in the letter they were never given a heads up about the day shelter’s possibility, calling it “an obvious lack of transparency.”

It goes on to allege none of the four entities involved in the shelter’s operations have a legal title to the property and that there is “no regular congregation using the building on a consistent basis.”

The neighbors insist the building has been vacant for at least five years, since the death of Rev. Beatrice Smith, who acquired the building in 1970 and ran a church there. New Hanover County property records show it was transferred from Smith to the Holy Ghost Deliverance Prayer Center of Wilmington in 1987. 

Since 2019, the church has been used by one of the day shelter organizers, the Anchor United Methodist, for ministry and mission outreach. It’s also been occupied by Vision Center Baptist Church, which has worshiped in that location since January 2022.

City attorney Everhart responded to the neighbors’ concerns March 7. She assured residents that someone on the Holy Ghost Tabernacle’s nonprofit board can act on behalf of the property ownership to allow groups to use the building for mission and ministry activities. She also wrote any current use of the building has been authorized.

The neighbors’ letter states since the day shelter is not city- or county-funded, it may “lack oversight.” It implies the faith-based groups are not equipped to offer services for the homeless population.

Collectively, the partners have served marginalized populations and worked with unsheltered neighbors in Wilmington for more than a decade. 

“A lot of these guys we’ve had relationships with for years,” Christine Perez, with Living Hope Street Ministry told PCD. “Our goal is to serve food but we really serve friendship and prayer and just spending time together to know their names, their stories; they know our story. And just hanging out together.”

Tony and Christine Perez launched Living Hope Street Ministry during the pandemic and have been serving free lunch every Wednesday to those in need. Christine told Port City Daily last month so much of what they do is fellowship and getting to know the individuals on a personal level.

Roughly 70 people a week shuffle through at a parking lot on Red Cross Street, across town from the location of the proposed day shelter.

Rev. Meg McBride of Hope Recovery UMC — also vice chair of the Cape Fear Continuum of Care, a collaborative alliance of local providers focused on homlessness — opened a day shelter in 2016. She partnered with The Feast Gathering’s Rev. Randy Evans, who has been ministering to people experiencing poverty for over a decade. It served 30 to 50 people daily, five days a week, until the Fifth Avenue building was flooded by Hurricane Florence.

McBride and Evans also run The Warming Shelter, a pop-up emergency refuge for anyone experiencing homelessness. Any two consecutive nights the temperature drops below 30 degrees, the shelter opens at Trinity UMC. It has opened on weekends twice in the last three months and served roughly 70 each night. 

The Warming Shelter was recently recognized by the Cape Fear Council of Governments for its regional impact on those experiencing homelessness.

“I’m just a pastor trying to do something,” McBride told PCD last month of the day shelter initiative. “We’re literally putting a little something together. We’re going for it. We don’t know how long it’s gonna last or how long we can fund it.”

McBride previously worked as the director of Hope Recuperative Care, a respite home for homeless hospital patients, and also as a patient advocate for persons experiencing homelessness at Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Rev. Jamie Thompson with Anchor UMC, moved to Wilmington in the summer of 2022. She hosts weekly services downtown on the Riverwalk.

“A lot of the folks living on the streets worship with us on Sunday morning,” Thompson said.

Grants from the New Hanover County Endowment kickstarted the feasibility of opening a day shelter on Fourth Street. Hope Recovery received $27,800 for operating expenses and Anchor UMC received $32,000 for capital improvements to make it happen.

In the neighbors’ letter, they question the endowment’s process for doling out funds, alleging it was done “without restriction, oversight, or proof of qualifications.”

NHC Endowment CEO and president William Buster told PCD The Anchor UMC and Hope Recovery UMC met the pre-existing qualifications to be eligible to receive funding, which include:

  • Alignment with one or more of the Endowment’s strategic pillars: community safety, social and health equity, education, and community development
  • 501(c)(3) nonprofit, government entities, and those with fiscal sponsors
  • Two or more years in operation as an organization
  • Audited financial statements for the most recent fiscal year or two years of budgets
  • Mailing address and provide services in New Hanover County, though organization may serve additional counties
  • IRS Form 990 for the most recent fiscal year

“While the Endowment did supply a grant for a day shelter, the determinants for the location of that day shelter and other day-to-day processes are parts of the internal operations at The Anchor United Methodist Church, which the Endowment is not affiliated with,” Buster said. “We know that transformational change does not happen overnight, but we are committed to continuing to listen and share ideas with the greater New Hanover community to create a place where all can thrive.”

City attorney Everhart wrote back to the concerned neighbors that the pastors plan to reach out to the city’s planning and zoning department to discuss anticipated building uses.

“I would also encourage you and your neighbors to contact Meg McBride, and possibly request a community meeting with her and the other ministers involved in this endeavor, to discuss your concerns with them and possibly help shape their decisions about what they want to do moving forward,” she wrote.

McBride penned a response letter, signed by the participating partners, and sent it to the neighbors, which she shared with PCD.

“As faith-based organizations, the four-partner collaborative is committed to serving neighbors experiencing homelessness and building relationships with other organizations that hold shared values,” the note stated. “They also welcome conversations with those who seek to work toward long-term, person-centered solutions that address homelessness — especially where all persons are affirmed as equally valuable.”

Jessi Buechler, on behalf of the Church and Fourth Street neighbors, replied that operating a day shelter at the church does not “address root causes” of homelessness or “implement long-term sustainable solutions.”

The coalition of pastors still plan to open a day shelter downtown, but when and where remains up in the air.

“We all have full-time assignments to be pastors of our churches,” McBride told PCD. “So this is like bonus work, without bonus time or bonus pay. We’re trying to figure out how we can be dedicated to this effort, which is really important to all of us and we feel called to it, and balance that with our main assignments. And the way to do that is collaboration; we believe collaboration is the future.”

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