City land eyed for homeless shelter

By Tom Joyce -
The existing Shepherd’s House on Rockford Street appears in a June 2017 file photo. -

A possible alternative has emerged regarding an expansion of Mount Airy’s only homeless shelter — other than at its existing site, for which rezoning was denied two weeks ago in a controversial move.

That potential solution to a resulting community furor, which is scheduled to be discussed at a meeting of the city board of commissioners Thursday at 7 p.m., involves former Spencer’s industrial property. The site in question is near the corner of South and Franklin streets at the western end of the sprawling former textile complex which was bought by the city government in 2014.

During Thursday night’s meeting, the commissioners will discuss the possible gift/lease/sale of Spencer’s property to the Greater Mount Airy Ministry of Hospitality Inc., a non-profit organization that operates the Shepherd’s House. Commissioners Jim Armbrister and Steve Yokeley will lead that discussion.

A Shepherd’s House official said Tuesday that the organization’s board of directors is open to utilizing that property for its expansion plans to serve more homeless clients.

“If it is positive for us and if it gives us room to grow, I think we as a board would be open to that,” Executive Director Mary Boyles said of entertaining the alternative site.

Thursday’s planned discussion is coming in the wake of a 4-1 vote at the board’s last meeting on May 3, to deny a rezoning request to accommodate an expansion of the homeless shelter at its present location, 227 Rockford St. Plans have called for new facilities to be constructed on a 1.1-acre site to the rear of that building fronting Spring Street, including a 12-bed residential-care unit.

This would allow the homeless shelter to increase its client capacity from 18 to about 50 and address a growing homeless population in the area.

The Shepherd’s House provided temporary housing and other services for 253 people in 2016, but another 413 were turned away for lack of space. Then in 2017, the client caseload totaled 261, with 568 not being served.

In denying the rezoning, the prevailing opinion among the commissioners was that the expansion would not be appropriate for the historic district in which the property is located.

Commissioner Shirley Brinkley centered her objection on the Mount Airy Comprehensive Plan, a document that guides city officials on land-use decisions, which says such developments should have only a minimal effect on surrounding areas.

Brinkley, in making the motion to deny the rezoning, said the impact on the neighborhood instead would be great and she and other board members acknowledged receiving contacts from many citizens opposed to the move.

Alternative emerges

The rezoning denial sparked an outpouring of opposition to the board’s decision via social media and other online outlets, and calls for the decision to be reversed.

That sentiment apparently has not been lost on city officials including Commissioner Armbrister, who subsequently sent a letter to Boyles, the Shepherd’s House executive director.

“Hearing and listening to many of our citizens express their thoughts of the board decision (on May 3) is something which cannot be ignored by me,” he wrote Boyles.

Armbrister further states in the letter how much he appreciates the Shepherd’s House, mirroring thoughts of other officials who support its mission but question the expansion at the present location.

He also had commented at the May 3 meeting that if the shelter didn’t do so there, then where?

This led to the Spencer’s land proposition on the part of both Armbrister and Commissioner Yokeley.

“I just thought we needed to come up with a better solution for it,” Yokeley said Tuesday of the shelter expansion earlier proposed, acknowledging neighbors’ objections to that plan.

“We got a lot of opposition to it from quite a few people,” he added, through emails, telephone calls and personal contacts.

Yokeley believes offering the Spencer’s site represents a good resolution to the situation.

“I think it’s better than a compromise — I actually think it’s a better location for it than at the Shepherd’s House,” Yokeley said of the project.

For one thing, the size of the parcel is larger, 3.2 acres altogether, although the actual land proposed for use for the homeless facilities varies. Yokeley said right of way allowances would have to be included and city access from Franklin Street ensured.

“The acreage would be adjusted to what they need,” Yokeley said of Shepherd’s House officials. “I don’t know what amount to give them.”

Armbrister wants to allow shelter leaders to determine what fits their needs for the long term “and I would support it,” he said Tuesday. Building at the Spencer’s location would permit the center to add more residential and office space in the future.

“I think it would allow us to grow,” Boyles, the Shepherd’s House executive director, said Tuesday.

“We’re limited here,” she added of the existing grounds.

“We’ve invested money into this location,” Boyles said of soil borings and other preliminary work ahead of construction, but indicated that this doesn’t deter the idea of looking elsewhere.

She explained that Mike Bowman, board chairman for the Greater Mount Airy Ministry of Hospitality, has been spearheading recent conversations with the city government on the matter.

Yokeley said the alternate plan for the shelter also would breathe new life into the former Spencer’s property targeted, which includes a long-empty parking lot.

“The property hasn’t been used for years, and I’d like to see something there besides a rusty fence.”

The existing Shepherd’s House on Rockford Street appears in a June 2017 file photo. existing Shepherd’s House on Rockford Street appears in a June 2017 file photo.

By Tom Joyce

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.