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.
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”
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.
there was a need, and we did what we could,” said Mrs. Watts.
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” in 2000, meaning that for
the prior three decades 20 percent or more of their population lived in poverty.
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.
economic downturn has hit the region hard.
started serving Thanksgiving dinner in 1995. We served 25 people, or about half
a turkey,” joked Mrs. Watts.
they served around 700 plates.
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.
Ministries now wants to focus on Pasquotank County’s homelessness problem. Estimates vary, 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.
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
area truly needs,” said Smith, “is a large facility to take care of families in
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
the recognized need, the Pasquotank County Board of Commissioners is divided on
the issue of leasing the jail to Amen Ministries.
commissioners are worried about the financial viability 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.
is drying up,” said Smith. “We look for funding in many different places—but
then, so does everybody else.”
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.
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.
one commissioner has expressed a concern that the proposed facility would attract homeless people from surrounding
areas 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”
hurdle for the Wattses is a general wariness about opening another “warehousing”
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.”
insists that Amen Ministries wants to do something completely different with
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,”
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
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.
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”
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.
Mr. and Mrs. Watts remain optimistic and determined to see their vision
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
Posted by Galo V. Centenera on Thu. July 26, 2012 4:54 PM