A battle is brewing between an advocate for the homeless county population and the Rockingham city government — and both sides seem to be set in their ways.
There could be a winner decided as soon as 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, when Mayor Steve Morris and the City Council convene a public hearing to address a proposed zoning ordinance amendment that would limit the permitting of new homeless shelters or soup kitchens to areas designated Highway Business (B-3). The amendment was unanimously forwarded by the city’s Planning and Zoning Board and recommended for approval by the council.
The Baker House is the former home for the only homeless shelter in Richmond County and the only soup kitchen in Rockingham — both operated by the Richmond County Mental Health Society. It suffered significant structural damage in a mid-August fire that began in an adjacent building.
City Manager Monty Crump said the inclusion such uses in the city’s ordinances are long overdue and that activities at The Baker House had been grandfathered in since 1987.
But the building suffered more than 25 percent damage, Crump said, and existing law dictates that a building permit is needed before rebuilding could begin. Crump said the only way a building permit could be obtained is if homeless shelters and soup kitchens were included as conditional uses within the city’s zoning ordinance.
“You have to be in a zoning district that allows that use,” Crump said.
The B-3 designation includes the area along U.S. Route 1 in which The Baker House is located. It does not include any of downtown Rockingham — an issue Arthur B. Thompson Jr. said limits homeless advocates’ ability to help the homeless and downtrodden. Thompson said offers to temporarily relocate the soup kitchen to a few different places downtown, including one on North Randolph Street, are unable to be accepted because city officials don’t want “those people” to walk through the area.
It will cost at least $70,000 to rebuild at the current location, Thompson said, and his organization currently does not have that amount of money on hand. Thompson said he feels city officials want to keep the homeless away from the downtown revitalization — a project, he said, that has never come to fruition.
Crump said Thompson and his peers feel they have a “compassionate, benevolent mission, and it shouldn’t follow any rules or regulations. Everybody is subject to (the ordinances) — schools, churches (and) nonprofits.”
Thompson, though, is adamant in his position.
“We’re the spokesmen, the advocates, for all of (the homeless),” Thompson said of the Richmond County Mental Health Society. “The philosophy of the city is this, if the shelter and the soup kitchen go away, ‘those people’ will go away. And that is a bunch of baloney.”
Crump vehemently denied trying to dissuade any of the homeless population from entering downtown Rockingham.
“I find that a very offensive comment that is totally untrue,” Crump said. “It has been explained to Mr. Thompson on numerous occasions that that is not what the purpose of this zoning amendment is. I’m not trying to be uncompassionate, or uncaring, but at the same time, when you’ve got an obligation to neighborhoods and communities …”
Crump said a 2006 public “standing room only” meeting indicated how strongly some felt against some of the posside impacts of the location of the homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Many members of the surrounding communities and even some members of the religious community spoke against the shelter and soup kitchen.
Neighbors showed up and spoke against “people having sex in their yards, using the bathrooms in their yards, (leaving) trash in their yards, things being stolen,” Crump said.
On Tuesday, Thompson delivered to Crump a formal request to delay next week’s public hearing until November. Then, Thompson said, he would have more time to generate support among the faith-based community.
But Crump said Thompson’s opposition is counterproductive to the end goal of serving and feeding the homeless.
“They’re getting the most favorable view that I can see,” Crump said.
Crump said he was not certain how, or if, the council would consider Thompson’s request for a postponement.