On the other side of the Outer Banks, away from the beaches and palatial homes, there is another story to be told of life in a beach community. Scattered within the dense maritime forests that line the western shore of the sounds is an occasional makeshift campsite, or a tarp strung between two trees.
For Shari Fiveash, the new executive director of the OBX Room in the Inn, the campsites and tarps tell a story that is common throughout the world, but is, in some ways, unique to the Outer Banks.
“This community is really blessed in the fact that you don’t see the homeless here,” she said. “I’ve been all over the world and they’re…at your doorstep. Here, for some reason, they’re parked there camping in the woods. So I think people don’t realize that need.”
The need to confront the problem on the Outer Banks, however, is real, Fiveash noted, and the resources are very limited.
“We’re (Room in the Inn) the only ones that provide housing (for the unhoused) in Dare County,” she said.
OBX Room in the Inn was established in 2009 to support people experiencing homelessness in Dare County. It is a faith-based organization that works with churches, government agencies and other groups. The ability of the organization to offer shelter, though, is very limited.
Housing for those experiencing homelessness is only offered from Nov. 1 through April 30 and even then who is able to use the shelter service the organization offers is restricted.
“We have one facility and this year we lost more beds for several reasons. We’re very thankful to the people that do let us use that facility but it’s tough to take the idea that we’re going to have less rooms this year than we did last year,” Fiveash said.
She explained that some of the space that had been used for shelter was being converted to office space. The space itself was already restricted in how it could be used. There is no way, as an example, for OBX Room in the Inn to house a family.
“We can’t take families just because we separate by men and women for security reasons,” Fiveash said.
The schedule of when the shelter is available highlights an ongoing and growing crisis in housing on the Outer Banks, and Dare County specifically.
During the busiest time of year, including the peak season months of June through August and the shoulder seasons of April, May, September and most of October, the building that Room in the Inn uses is reserved for seasonal workforce housing.
Although there is wide agreement that there is a critical housing shortage, finding a place to build workforce or essential housing has become a highly charged political issue.
Responding to overwhelming opposition from residents, the town of Manteo’s Board of Commissioners recently turned down a request from the county to use the town’s sewer system for a planned workforce apartments on county land.
In January of this year, the town of Nags Head changed its zoning to prevent a planned 54-unit housing project that would have been located across from Jockey’s Ridge State Park.
After a 10-acre cluster home development in Wanchese received tentative approval pending a wetlands permit, the outcry from residents forced the county to remove 22 cluster development plats from county ordinances in May.
The workforce housing need is extraordinary in Dare County.
In an Outer Banks Voice article on the Manteo vote against permitting the county to use the town’s sewer system, County Manager Bobby Outten noted how dire the need for housing was, “We’re lacking 2,500 (units),” he said.
The lack of housing has been felt by Room in the Inn and Fiveash is quick to indicate that many of the people they are serving are working.
“We have people that are employed that stay with us because they can’t afford or find housing. And that’s last year and this year,” she said.
And she added, it is uncertain just how many people living in the county are without housing.
In looking at how many meals were provided over the past year as well as intake for beds, the number of homeless that the organization provided shelter for was 45. That figure, though, does not tell the complete story.
“There’s numerous we have to turn away because we only have a limit to how much we can house. And we just don’t have a place or facilities for children,” Fiveash said.
“Ideally, if we had our own facility, that would be key,” although that would take a level of support that currently does not exist for Room in the Inn, she continued. There is community support and Dare County does help, but the individual towns have not contributed to the organization.
“We do get about $15,000 a year from the county,” Fiveash said, adding that she’s never been in a situation where each town or municipality also contributed.
Some of that may be that the towns and the people who live and work on the Outer Banks do not know there are people experiencing homelessness, and that helping people to understand that could be what is needed to garner more support.
“I think awareness is going to be key. You don’t see them, but if you look for them, they’re there,” Fiveash said. “I know about families sleeping in their car. A lot of ladies seem to call more than men. They’ve been through a bad situation and now they’re in their car. And I hate to tell them that we don’t start housing folks until Nov. 1.”