Washington shelter may close doors

Published 8:40 pm Saturday, November 24, 2012

Helen Guthrie volunteers for the Thanksgiving meal at Zion Shelter and Kitchen in Washington on Thanksgiving Day. The shelter is facing financial difficulties and may soon face closure. (WDN Photo/Mona Moore)

For 28 years, men have filed into the basement room to find a bed and settle in for the night. For many, it’s been a safe haven, a place to get a good meal and find shelter from the elements — a place in which to weather tough times.
But the days of Zion Shelter and Kitchen may be numbered, according to Harlan McKendrick, the shelter’s treasurer and one of its founders. Funding, limited to begin with, has been cut dramatically over the past several years — from city, state and federal governments, and organizations like United Way — leaving the shelter in a precarious position, said McKendrick.
“Everything is running very smoothly,” McKendrick said. “Except for the money.”
In October, the shelter’s 12 beds were occupied each night and at lunch, served Monday through Friday to anyone needing a good meal, an average of 50 plates were served each day. The need is there, McKendrick said, but the current economic environment has gotten in the way.
“It’s the economy — but everyone says that,” he said.
For nearly three decades, Zion Shelter has been kept afloat by basic frugality, McKendrick explained: instead of paying an outside employee, a shelter client is paid $10 a night to oversee the shelter’s overnight operations; local churches volunteer a home-cooked meal, prepared and served, once a month; through Food Bank of the Albemarle, Food Lion on Washington’s west side donates recently expired goods, as well as meat for 13-cents a pound. The 647 pounds of meat consumed in October cost a total of $49.
However, the recent slashes to funding, combined with the rate at which promised funds are arriving have made imminent closure a real possibility for the shelter, McKendrick said. While support from the City of Washington and United Way were decreased by 60- and 50-percent this year, other sources like the Federal Emergency Shelter Grant Program funds — $800 a month for 8 months — have yet to come in, though promised for the fiscal year starting in July. FEMA has promised $4500, which will arrive in January, but at that point, according to McKendrick, it may be too late.
“At the moment, I’ve got enough money to go for another month,” McKendrick said. “Some of our biggest expenses are utilities — electric and gas. We pay a pretty minute amount for our staff.”
In addition to Director Robert Harris, there is one other staff member along with the night supervisor chosen from among the shelter’s clients.
According to McKendrick, the basement room of the Metropolitan A.M.E. Zion Church affords much more than a place to sleep and a free lunch: Zion Shelter gives those on one of life’s downswings the opportunity to get back on their feet and out on their own. Among the clients there are the chronically unemployed, those recently released from the hospital or jail, many whose families are no longer able, or willing, to support them.
“If you don’t have a home, there’s so much you don’t have,” McKendrick explained, adding that access to showers and laundry facilities, knowing where to get a hearty meal once a day, makes each client more marketable as a potential employee. By all indications, the assistance is appreciated: “It’s sort of amazing we’ve been running for 28 years as of Dec. 15, and we’ve never had any disturbance or problems.”
When asked what will happen to the clients if the shelter is forced to close, he shrugged: “I guess they’ll be sleeping on porches, in abandoned cars.”
McKendrick plans to address the issue of emergency funding with the Washington City Council at the Dec. 10 meeting, as well as approach the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, through the county has not backed the homeless shelter in the past, said McKendrick.
To find out how to volunteer with Zion Shelter and Food Kitchen, call Harlan McKendrick at 252-946-0949 or shelter director Robert Harris at 252-975-1978. Donations can be mailed to P.O. Box 2324, Washington, NC 27889.