Brunswick County pastors unite against code interpretations, unable to shelter homeless

Published: Feb. 20, 2015 at 4:45 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 24, 2015 at 9:42 PM EST
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BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Brunswick County pastors are questioning how local law enforcement agencies interpret building codes they say discriminate churches from sheltering the homeless.

Reverend Donna Phelps of the Brunswick County Streetreach program says county officials were aware of the homeless they sheltered in years past and no action was taken.

Streetreach is a program where different churches are on call for one week out of the year to house the homeless from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. during extreme cold. The program runs from November 1 to March 1.

Now, Phelps says she is unable to assist the homeless and the poor through housing them in churches, but there are still programs for children and teens.

According to the Ocean View Baptist Church about 80 youths have stayed during "sleep lock-ins" for up to three weeks at a time for summer camps.

"All of a sudden last year, even though law enforcement and all of Brunswick County officials have been aware that we have been doing this inside the church facilities, we start getting calls from the building inspector's office that we are in violation, that we have to follow the codes of an overflow shelter," explained Phelps.

Section 424 of the North Carolina Building Code defines a "temporary overflow shelter" as "a shelter that provides temporary overflow accommodations from an approved homeless shelter."

Representative Frank Iler overturned this application to the Brunswick County churches because there is no permanent shelter or warming station for the less-fortunate or the homeless.

North Carolina's Department of Insurance and Office of State Fire Marshal Code Consultant Richard Strickland then told Phelps the occupancy would need to be changed to residential if anyone sleeps in the church - including youths and homeless. This means a new set of rules would apply, and the churches would have to do a 'change of occupancy' to house anyone.

"The county is saying if 'anyone' is allowed over night events -- whether youth, seniors, or homeless, the church would have to apply for a permit. If there is no automatic sprinkler system in facility, most likely they will not be allowed to do overnight functions," Phelps said.

"I am perplexed that the churches are not allowed to do outreach to the homeless in their facilities, since the churches are mandated to serve the poor," Phelps discussed. "Many of them do have sprinkler systems, and all have passed fire code to hold services. Where is the separation of church and state? Please help me understand."

Brunswick County's Chief Building Inspector Reggie Hicks replied on behalf of NCDOI Supervisor Building Code Council Barry Gupton.

"If your program is only a five day outreach per year and less than 14 hours per occurrence, as you have indicated...the fire marshall could set up a permitting system as an alternate method," suggested Hicks. "This system would consist of a program of obtaining permits from the fire marshals office with a fire watch detail submitted for each occurrence. The logistics of how this works will be up to the fire marshal, if he chooses to allow this alternate method, and a conversation should be started there first."

Phelps contacted Brunswick County Fire Marshal Scott Garner who told her, "he needed several hours to sort things out and would be back in touch."

While the punishment has not yet been finalized, Garner said churches that do not follow the occupancy guidelines, they could be fined $100 the first day, $300 the second, and $500 for each following day someone is in the facility. If the behavior is continued, it could be considered a criminal offense and law enforcement would be called to remove all involved. Garner says these are typical code violation punishments, which he hopes this situation does not come down to.

Garner says he and other agencies have come up with a permit system and if churches or other facilities would like to house people overnight then they could apply today.

"What we've developed today is not specific to a homeless situation," Garner added. "What we've put in place is to use a non-residential occupancy for a short-term residential use. It could be used for a summer camp. It could be used for homeless during cold situations."

"We can't be everywhere at once," Garner said. He says he was never aware of local churches sheltering homeless or hosting summer camps for children.

Phelps and other Brunswick County pastors are believe officials could be crossing lines concerning separation of church and state, and say they're hindering pastors from what they are called to do.

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