Victory in Action: Shelter Welcomes Those in Need

Diana Simpson
Diana Simpson  ·  September 25, 2023

Three years after it asked the town of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, for permission to put a piece of property to productive use, the Catherine H. Barber Memorial Shelter finally opened its doors. All it took was tenacity, determination, and a federal lawsuit to get there.

The Barber Shelter first opened its doors over 30 years ago, providing overnight refuge to people who are temporarily homeless and have nowhere else to go. It is the only homeless shelter in Wilkes County and sleeps, on average, fewer than a dozen people per night.

In 2020, the Barber Shelter was looking for a new space when a local dentist generously offered his former office building as a location. The space was perfect: It was in an ideal part of town—near the services the shelter’s clients use, far from residential areas—and met each of the town’s zoning requirements. All it needed was a permit.

But the town was not interested in allowing the Barber Shelter to care for the area’s neediest. Instead, it invented bogus reasons to deny the shelter its permit, such as concerns about the shelter’s clients walking on the sidewalk near a busy road. But that is nonsensical; the town requires homeless shelters to have sidewalks and be situated near major roads.

The government’s reasoning meant that there was nowhere in town for the shelter to go. But the Constitution prohibits governments from ruling by paradox, and so the Barber Shelter teamed up with IJ to fight back. We sued the town, and, a few days before Christmas 2021, a federal court sided with IJ and the shelter, concluding that “deference cannot be an excuse for the Court to abdicate its duty to protect the constitutional rights of all people.”

Victory in hand, the Barber Shelter got to work renovating the property. Today, you’d never guess the building’s previous life as a dental office. It now provides short-term housing for up to 10 men on the first floor and six women and a family on the second floor. There are kitchens, common areas, laundry facilities, and other necessities to provide comfort during a difficult time.

Everything came together on August 5, 2023, and IJ was there, too—we couldn’t miss this celebration! Flanked by many volunteers and supporters, Mary Smith—daughter of the shelter’s namesake—cut the red ribbon to open the new forever home of the Barber Shelter. And the ceremony memorialized an important principle: Government shouldn’t stand in the way of private citizens using their own property and initiative to help the least fortunate in their communities.

Diana Simpson is an IJ attorney.

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