Elizabeth City ministry looks to convert former jail into “rehabilitation social center” for homeless

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The Albemarle District Jail Facility, located in Elizabeth City, closed two years ago. Dust-covered police cruisers with underinflated tires idle in the parking lot. The doors are locked.

Eugene and Volanda Watts, founders of Amen Ministries, feel that the former jail could be put to better use. They have been petitioning Pasquotank County to let them lease the building in order to set up a shelter for the county’s homeless. So far, however, their efforts have been frustrated by a Board of Commissioners whose initial support has turned into cautious hesitance.

“We saw there was a need”

Amen Ministries has been serving Elizabeth City’s needy since 1989. Armed with nothing more than a grill and donated food, the Wattses set up on a street corner and began feeding anyone who showed up.

“We saw there was a need, and we did what we could,” said Mrs. Watts.

There has been “a need” in northeast North Carolina for a long time now. Of the sixteen counties that make up the state’s Northeast Economic Development Region, six were classified as “persistently poor” (PDF) in 2000, meaning that for the prior three decades 20 percent or more of their population lived in poverty.

Although Pasquotank County was not one of the persistently poor counties, it does have a higher poverty rate than the state average. In 2010, 22.9 percent of its residents lived below the federal poverty line. The state average was 17.4 percent.

The recent economic downturn has hit the region hard.

“We started serving Thanksgiving dinner in 1995. We served 25 people, or about half a turkey,” joked Mrs. Watts.

Last year, they served around 700 plates.

“The recession has been devastating. Unemployment, rising utility rates, and medical emergencies have taken their toll on many middle class people,” said Mrs. Watts. “Many have lost the opportunity to live in the house they grew up in.

Amen Ministries now wants to focus on Pasquotank County’s homelessness problem. Estimates vary (PDF), but most sources put the number of homeless in the county and surrounding area at around 110-200. In any case, there are more homeless people than there are places to shelter them.

According to Gustave Smith, President of the Northeast Coalition to End Homelessness, there are only three homeless shelters in the county, providing only about twenty-nine beds. They are all located in Elizabeth City, and none of them can accommodate families.

“What the area truly needs,” said Smith, “is a large facility to take care of families in one location.”

The Wattses want to convert the abandoned 88-bed jail into a “rehabilitation social center.” It would also provide accommodations for entire families.

The county’s concerns

Despite the recognized need, the Pasquotank County Board of Commissioners is divided on the issue of leasing the jail to Amen Ministries.

Some commissioners are worried about the financial viability (PDF) of the project. Renovation costs could run into the tens, and even hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Yearly expenses also cause concern, since funding for nonprofit organizations has gone down recently.

“Funding is drying up,” said Smith. “We look for funding in many different places—but then, so does everybody else.”

Mr. Watts, however, is optimistic about Amen Ministries’ ability to raise the necessary money. He believes that they will be able to meet the renovation costs and is confident that the yearly expenses would be covered through a combination of grants and donations from a network of churches.

Another concern is that the jailhouse should be used for strictly county purposes or to produce a revenue stream for the county. Mr. Watts, however, points out the jail has been unused for two years and that it actually costs the county money.

“It costs them about $2,000 a month just to keep the lights on,” said Mr. Watts.

At least one commissioner has expressed a concern that the proposed facility would attract homeless people from surrounding areas (PDF) to Pasquotank County. (Similar concerns were raised about installing public restrooms and showers, intended for use by visiting boaters, near the city’s downtown waterfront.

A “rehabilitation social center”

Another hurdle for the Wattses is a general wariness about opening another “warehousing” shelter.

“The old model was that a shelter was simply a place for the homeless to sleep,” said Mrs. Watts. “You let them in at night and you put them out in the morning.”

She insists that Amen Ministries wants to do something completely different with the jail.

“We want to do more than provide a place to stay,” she said. “We want to operate a 24-hour facility that provides services to help people get back on their feet,” she said.

Amen Ministries already helps homeless people get the services they need, albeit on a small-scale and somewhat chaotic manner. On any given day you are likely to see Mrs. Watts drive by in her van, chauffeuring local homeless people to their appointments.

On the day that I met her, Mrs. Watts drove two people to their appointments. Orita, a middle-aged woman, had an appointment at Port Human Services. Stanton, a middle-aged man who found himself periodically homeless after his mother died of a stroke, had a woodshop class at Skills, Inc.

“It’s a small but important thing,” said Mrs. Watts. “The programs are here, but a lot of people won’t use them on their own. For one, there’s no public transportation here and, of course, the people who need the services usually don’t have a car. And then there are people who just don’t want to go to appointments. But, if you’re in my car, that’s where you’re going.”

“We’ll keep trying”

The approval process has not been easy. Mr. and Mrs. Watts have appeared before the Board of Commissioners numerous times. They have submitted (and re-submitted) renovation plans, cost estimates, and business plans. Yet, there always seems to be something standing in the way of approval.

Nonetheless, Mr. and Mrs. Watts remain optimistic and determined to see their vision through.

“We’ve done everything they’ve asked us to do and agreed to their conditions,” said Mr. Watts. “We’ll keep trying. There’s a need here for a place like we want to open.”

Posted by Galo V. Centenera on Thu. July 26, 2012 4:54 PM
Categories: Student Research

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