Zion Shelter history and personal stories

Published 8:14 pm Friday, November 4, 2016

Who are the homeless? Why are/were they homeless? What are their stories?

On any given night, Zion Shelter on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in downtown Washington provides shelter for nine to 11 men who otherwise would be sleeping in the open air or in cars or abandoned buildings. Maximum shelter capacity is limited by fire safety regulations to 12 men who may each stay for up to 120 days. The length of stay may be extended provided persons follow shelter guidelines and are trying to improve themselves.

The shelter was the brainchild of a group of local churches called the Washington Interfaith Forum. In 1984, the forum began looking for a project that might serve the city’s poor. After much discussion, the forum decided to sponsor and fund a homeless shelter.

The Articles of Incorporation creating the shelter were signed on Jan. 3, 1985. Among the signatories and first board members (and the churches they represented) were Robert Hodges (St. Peter’s Episcopal), Walter Andrews (First Baptist), Chester Bright (St. Paul Episcopal), Dr. Jerry Bron (First Presbyterian), Robert Harris (Metropolitan AME Zion and the shelter’s current executive director), Helen Howard (Mother of Mercy Catholic), Betty Randolph (Metropolitan AME), Beatrice Seal (First Presbyterian), Dr. Glen Weaver (First Christian) and Joyce White (First United Methodist).

Shortly after incorporation, an old house on Second Street was identified as a possible site for the shelter. The forum announced its intention to purchase the house, but its efforts were blocked by neighbors who objected to the presence of a homeless shelter in their neighborhood. One of the original signatories of the Articles of Incorporation and current executive director, Robert Harris, turned to the leaders of his church, Metropolitan AME Zion, for assistance. The church granted permission to use its Church Hall.

Originally, the shelter welcomed women and children as well as men. Mattresses were placed on the floor of the hall, enough to accommodate the 30 to 40 persons who sheltered there each night. From among them, a non-stipendiary night manager was selected to keep order. After three years, women stopped coming. From then on, the shelter limited itself to men.

In the early years, in addition to providing beds and showers, the shelter, under Harris’ direction, served soup lunches Mondays-Fridays. Cooks were initially paid to prepare meals, but a lack of funds forced Harris to terminate the positions and assume that responsibility. In those first years, the shelter also offered GED classes and courses on computer literacy and teen parenting.

Today the shelter through its kitchen provides hot lunches for 30-35 hungry Washington citizens five days a week, Mondays through Fridays, and bagged lunches on Saturdays. Robert Harris’ son, Keith, took over for his father as chief cook a year ago and supervises preparation of the meals. Local volunteers assist in washing and drying dishes.

Saturday bag lunches are prepared and delivered to the kitchen by outside organizations including First Presbyterian Church, Grace Lutheran Church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Boy Scout Troop 99, Kingdom Builders and Old Ford Church of Christ.

Some of the food served by the shelter is derived from governmental and non-profit agencies, including the United States Agricultural Department (canned and frozen meats and fish) and Eagle’s Wings food pantry (vegetables and non-perishable items). But the largest part is furnished by local citizens. According to Harris, hardly a day goes by without someone walking through the door with a box of vegetables from a local garden or a bag of groceries from a local store.


Shelter Staff

Robert Harris has been the executive in charge of the shelter since its inception in 1985 and, until recently, it was an unpaid position. Harris has deep roots in the community. Both he and his wife are retired school teachers. Harris taught social studies at John Small Elementary for many years. Although over 90 years old, he can still be found at the shelter Mondays-Fridays helping in the kitchen, receiving donated food and greeting clients.

The only other financially compensated staff person is Jonathan Gaskins. Gaskins started out as the non-stipendiary night manager in 2011. The Board of Directors recently changed the position to a salaried one. Gaskins, a Washington native, returned to this hometown after retiring from the U.S. Army, following 16 years of service and a tour in Kuwait during Desert Storm.

Gaskins came back to Washington to take care of his invalid father with whom he lived. Upon his father’s death, the house in which his father lived was taken by the city for non-payment of taxes. Not wanting to live on the street, he came to the shelter where he stayed for nine months. In addition to his job at the shelter, Gaskins works at a local florist shop during the day. He and his new wife share a local apartment.


From Impersonal Statistics to Real Human Beings

Just as there is no typical home owner or apartment dweller, there is no typical homeless person. Although commonalities exist, each is unique and has his/her own backstory. Here are three examples.



Allen is a thin, 65-year-old African-American of average height. Allen uses a cane for stability and to help lessen the pain from malfunctioning hip joints while awaiting dual hip replacement surgery.

Allen was born but not raised in Washington. When he lost his job at a Waffle-House in Raleigh in 2013, he had nowhere to live so he returned to Washington to be with family. But instead of moving in with members of his extended family, Allen decided to live at the shelter where he remained for six months.

Since Zion Shelter does not have the funds or staff to offer programs during the day, it requires that occupants leave by 7 a.m. each day. With no other place to go, Allen often found himself walking the streets of Washington until the shelter reopened at 10 p.m.

Allen now shares an apartment with an uncle. He receives government assistance for various disabilities and hopes to move into his own low-income apartment soon.



Michael is a tall, Caucasian 61-year-old born and raised in Chocowinity. After graduating from Chocowinity High School in the early 1970s, he moved to Virginia where he was employed for most of the next 40 years as an experienced carpenter and roofer. In 2015, at the request of his son, Michael moved back to North Carolina and lived with his son and family in Greenville.

Feeling that he was imposing on his son’s hospitality, Michael moved out in hopes of securing a bed at the homeless shelter in Greenville, only to find that it was full and unable to take new clients. So he decided to return to his old stomping grounds and moved into the shelter in Washington.

Like Allen, Michael leaves the shelter at 7 a.m. each day and must find ways to occupy his time during the day. Michael chooses to spend the day at the Brown Library downtown and sometimes angles for fish in the Pamlico River. It is not unusual for his son to pick him up and take him to Greenville for a weekend visit.

Michael is looking for work and hopes to move out of the shelter soon.



John is a 58-year-old Caucasian male who spent three years at Zion Shelter from 2012-2015. John was allowed to exceed the maximum stay, because he helped in the kitchen and served as night manager when the regular manager was unavailable.

John became homeless as a result of a separation from his long-time girlfriend with whom he was sharing an apartment in Washington. In 2015, his church, Deeper Life, surprised him by making arrangements for him to rent an apartment at Monarch Apartments. The church also paid the first month’s rent.

When I met John, he was dressed in a green baseball cap, a short-sleeve shirt and long pants. He had just come from helping his church set up tents, chairs and tables for an afternoon barbeque behind his pastor’s house in a local residential community.

While residing at the Shelter, John spent the hours of 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. downtown along the waterfront, at Brown Library (especially during inclement weather) and helping prepare lunch at the shelter.

Like Allen and Michael, John was born in the area, specifically, the City of Roper in Washington County, near Plymouth. He and his family moved to Washington when he was 10. His mother and father died when he was 20 and both are buried in Oakdale Cemetery. A sister and brother live in Washington as well.

John attended John Cotton Tayloe and John Small Elementary Schools, P.S. Jones Middle School and graduated from Washington High School in 1977.

Today John works through Megaforce in temporary jobs of one to three months at a time. But like most homeless persons, he is without a car of his own and depends on the kindness of friends and church members for transportation.

Allen, Michael and John are but three of as many as 35 to 40 homeless persons in Beaufort County, mostly in the City of Washington. Their stories are typical of men without permanent shelter. But what about homeless women and children? Next week three women temporarily sheltering at Ruth’s House to escape situations of domestic abuse will share their stories.

Polk Culpepper is a retired Episcopal priest and a resident of Beaufort County.