Cities Try (and Fail) to Stop Homeless Shelters from Being Built

justice for homeless shelters

Cities have tried and failed to stop homeless shelters from being developed in their jurisdictions. Meanwhile, the skyrocketing cost of living puts more people at risk of experiencing homelessness.

In mid-December, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina ruled that the town of North Wilkesboro’s Board of Zoning Adjustment unconstitutionally denied a permit to build a homeless shelter.

According to the lawsuit, the Board denied the permit even though the city’s zoning code allows for 128 different types of businesses to be developed at the site. Moreover, the lawsuit accused the city of preventing the Barber Shelter, a private charity that has operated in North Carolina for more than three decades, from using its property to help others.

Judge Kenneth Bell reasoned that the Board’s denial violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because the city could not articulate a “rational basis for differentiating the Shelter from other uses that do not require a conditional use permit,” according to the court ruling.

The ruling comes as North Carolina’s Northwestern Continuum of Care, which includes data from North Wilkesboro, counted 171 people experiencing homelessness last year. That’s a 37 percent increase in homelessness from 2019, according to the North Carolina Coalition to End Homelessness.

“The Barber Shelter should have never needed to file a federal lawsuit to open at this location,” said Alexa Gervasi, an attorney for the Institute for Justice. This nonprofit public-interest law firm represented the Barber Shelter. “North Wilkesboro should have recognized all along that the location is perfect for a homeless shelter rather than violating the Constitution by making up reasons to deny a permit.”

While the case in North Wilkesboro represents the latest attempt by cities to limit services for people experiencing homelessness, it may not be the last.

Service providers in cities such as Salt Lake City, Utah, and Denver, Colorado, face challenges brought by private citizens and public officials.

In Salt Lake City, Mayor Erin Mendenhall introduced a temporary ban on new construction of homeless shelters in the city’s Ballpark neighborhood for six months. A report by Building Salt Lake suggests that the move is designed to give the state legislature, which reconvenes in January, time to work out new protections.

The order left room for temporary shelters to be approved, like a Ramada Inn on the city’s north side that Salt Lake City Council approved to become a shelter for 250 individuals in mid-November.

Denver residents have sued the local Board of Zoning Adjustments on three separate occasions to try and get rid of the city’s temporary safe outdoor spaces. These spaces are city-sanctioned campsites where people experiencing homelessness receive resources, services, and access to social workers and employment opportunities.

The residents have argued that the Board illegally approved the safe outdoor spaces and that the body didn’t solicit input from residents before approving the necessary zoning variances.

Denver recently expanded its total number of safe outdoor spaces to four, which can serve approximately 200 people on a given day. The city also opened its first outdoor space on the Denver Department of Human Services campus, marking the first time public land in the city has been used for this purpose. All the city’s other outdoor spaces are on private property.

But it’s not all doom-and-gloom for housing advocates who are trying to provide more shelter for people experiencing homelessness this winter.

For example, Washington Governor Jay Inslee has proposed spending $815 million to provide enhanced shelter options, build tiny home villages, and provide permanent housing solutions to the state’s homeless.

The proposal follows the Washington Department of Human Services estimates that suggest the state could see a two percent increase in homelessness this year. That means approximately 152,000 people in Washington are at risk of experiencing homelessness.

Meanwhile, cities like St. Paul, Minnesota, and Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, are looking for creative ways to provide additional shelter options during the cold months.

St. Paul’s Planning Commission relaxed its rules governing the operation of the day and overnight shelters in its jurisdiction back in August to make it easier for the two entities to operate in close proximity. The Commission approved the new rules despite pushback from the local community.

The Brackenridge Zoning Board also approved a plan to turn a former personal care home into a temporary shelter for people experiencing homelessness back in October. The shelter will welcome individuals and families and can serve up to 30 people, according to a report by TribLive.

“Maybe people aren’t aware, but we have people in our school community who sleep in their cars,” Misty Wood, a former president of the Highlands School Board, told the newspaper. “This shelter is commendable, necessary, and, ultimately, beneficial to the community as a whole.”

How You Can Help

The pandemic proved we need to rethink the way we address homelessness. Not only are more people at risk of experiencing homelessness, but solutions to the problem seem more distant than ever before.

Contact your representatives. Tell them you support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness once and for all.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

Related Topics

Your support can create amazing change

Join the campaign to end homelessness by supporting the only newsroom focused solely on the topic of homelessness. Our original reporting — posted five to seven days a week — can also be found on Apple News and Google News. Through storytelling, education, news, and advocacy, we are changing the narrative on homelessness.

Invisible People is a nonprofit organization. We rely on the support of friends like you — people who understand that well-written, carefully researched stories can change minds about this issue. And that’s what leads to true transformation and policy change. Our writers have their fingers on the pulse of homeless communities. Many are formerly or currently homeless themselves. They are the real experts, passionate about ending homelessness. Your support helps us tell the true story of this crisis and solutions that will end it. Your donations help make history by telling the real story of homelessness to inspire tangible actions to end it.

Your donation, big or small, will help bring real change.


Get the Invisible People newsletter


Homeless Woman Sleeps next to the Street to Avoid Arrest


homeless man in austin


Los Angeles Homeless Woman Lost Her Legs to Frostbite


homeless man in austin



Criminalization of homeless people in Missouri

Fresh Misery for Homeless People in Missouri

homelessness in Venice Beach

Homelessness in Venice Beach: Meet David

Venice Beach and Homelessness

Homelessness in Venice Beach: Meet Matthew

homelessness in Venice Beach

Homelessness in Venice Beach: Meet Aaron

Get the Invisible People newsletter