LUMBERTON — A meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday morning to resolve an issue concerning housing for volunteers who have come to the city to help people still recovering from hurricanes Matthew and Florence.
The meeting is to take place about 10 a.m. at Chestnut Street United Methodist Church, said Herbert Lowry Jr., the church’s pastor. The assistant state fire marshal, disaster recovery officials and leaders of area churches involved in housing teams of volunteers are expected to attend.
After a routine city fire inspection on May 9 at the church, located at 200 E. Eighth St. in Lumberton, church officials were told they could no longer provide housing for visiting teams of volunteers. First Presbyterian Church, located at 1002 N. Chestnut St. in Lumberton, was inspected Friday and was told it too could no longer house volunteer teams.
The object of the meeting is to find a solution that would allow the church to continue providing housing for the teams, said Lowry, who became pastor of the Methodist church on the first Sunday of July 2015. If they can’t continue housing the volunteers, he said recovery assistance efforts will suffer. Teams may stop coming to Lumberton if they must incur the expense of finding their own housing.
“It would be heartbreaking if they have to pay for their own motel rooms,” Lowry said.
State law provides for an exception to the housing rule that lasts for six months after a disaster strikes. Matthew struck in October 2016 and Florence in September 2018.
The 32 bunk beds cited during the May 9 inspection of Chestnut Street church were installed shortly after Matthew struck, Lowry said. The were built in two rooms at the church. One is for men and one for women, 16 beds in one and 16 in the other.
“We said early on that we could best help the community by making this housing available,” Lowry said.
The church also set up a shower trailer and installed wireless internet service, he said.
The housing services have been used by hundreds of teams from numerous relief organizations, Lowry said. Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites and Baptists have used the housing.
“We’ve had as many as 45 people come, and we have split them up among other churches,” he said.
Now housing for volunteers is in danger, and an effort to save it is underway.
“If we are unable to do that then we will have to make other housing arrangements, and that will make things more expensive,” Lowry said.
David Ruth, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, declined to comment.
It is a fire code violation to have sleeping quarters in a room or rooms not built as sleeping quarters, said Ben Andrews, Lumberton’s director of Inspections.
“A church is a church,” Andrews said. “It’s not a hotel.”
Sleeping arrangements were found at both churches, city Fire Marshal Joe Oliver said. There also were other violations related to fire alarms, emergency lighting, exits and more.
“They didn’t maintain it,” Oliver said.
They were given 3o days to correct the other violations, he said. The sleeping arrangements had to end immediately.
He was told by the churches’ personnel that the people using the sleeping arrangements were people from out of town who came to help with hurricane recovery work, Oliver said.
“I don’t know if they were local, but they couldn’t stay there,” Oliver said.
Losing free local housing could hurt Brethren Disaster Ministries recovery efforts in Robeson County.
“There is some possibility that we might find some housing out of state but close enough to let us work there (in Robeson County), said Steve Keim, a construction leader for the Brethren Disaster Ministries.
Any housing they found out Robeson County would have to be close enough so that volunteers could be effectively transported to the work sites, said Kim Gingerich, a project leader.
“Of course that cuts down on our work day,” Gingerich said.
Finding motel and hotel rooms in Lumberton wouldn’t work, she said.
“Unless someone wants to give us hotel and motel rooms,” Gingerich said laughing.
All funding for Brethren Disaster Ministries comes from donors, she said. Brethren Disaster Ministries can’t afford to spend the money on housing or pass that cost on to the volunteers.
“We must be good stewards of the money,” Gingerich said.
Brethren Disaster Ministries is based in New Windsor, Maryland, but the volunteers come from all over the United States, she said. The volunteers pay to travel to the work sites and Brethren Disaster Ministries provides housing, food, tools and vehicles.