Seeing the Invisible

November 23, 2013

Selfless saints support North Carolina’s poor with little help

A Goldsboro crisis center gets no support from the city, county or state. Although churches, small and large, line Slocumb Street, almost none supports the center in a city where 60 percent of the children of color live in poverty.

Stunning and shameful deprivation exists in impoverished communities across North Carolina. Rural or urban, white or black, young or old, hidden or visible, our sisters and brothers too often face burdens and impairments that shouldn’t be found in the world’s richest society. This tragic truth can be ignored. It can’t be refuted. But something else is frequently found in our poorest communities as well – a generosity, a selflessness, a resilience, a buoyancy, a commitment to service and a dedication to those who struggle, which is beyond my powers to describe and capability to understand. It is stunning what some people who don’t have two dimes to rub together will do to lift those they believe to be even more heavily burdened. Mother Teresa would not have been lonely in North Carolina.

The Rev. Adeen George is a minister without a church. Her “parish” is the streets of Goldsboro’s poorest neighborhoods. She laughs off labels like the “Saint of Slocumb Street” or “Angel of Webbtown.” They always reappear.

Goldsboro itself can be tough duty. Over 30 percent of its residents live in poverty, almost 60 percent of its children of color. One in 5 African-Americans lives in extreme poverty – on incomes of less than $11,500 a year for a family of four.

But the streets of the Webbtown community, where George grew up and raised her family, are even more daunting. Census tracts reveal overall poverty levels of 50 percent or higher and child poverty rates that astonish.

In the early 1980s, as George led a local prayer ministry, she decided to get involved. “I gave up my day job and my retirement,” as she puts it, “to work the streets.” Her husband thought she’d gone crazy. She hadn’t lost her moorings, but she had determined to focus her life on the command, from the 25th chapter of Matthew, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless.

Initially, she launched a grassroots effort to develop a community center to meet the basic human needs of the poor, the homeless and those fallen by the wayside. In 1982, the H.G.D.C. Community Crisis Center purchased 2.6 acres of run-down property on Slocumb Street. (The initials stand for Holy Ghost Drawing Center.) No bank financing was forthcoming. But lots of small gifts and a generous property owner made the acquisition possible.

For several years, George, her colleagues and scores of volunteers operated a relief program out of an old house they’d renovated on the property – running a soup kitchen and food pantry, giving homeless folks access to showers and clean clothes, helping people find work and taking much-appreciated meals into the surrounding community.

But need and demand far outstripped capacity. So George started a second campaign aimed at building an 8,500-square-foot facility to house the commercial kitchen, pantries, counseling rooms, bathrooms, shower stalls and community room required.

With thousands of donated hours and dollars – and generously supplied building materials – construction began in early 1994. By July, a tremendous storm, with ferocious winds, had swept through Goldsboro, and, as George puts it, the walls came down.

“We built things up again,” she explained, “undeterred. You can cry for only so long, then you get back to work.”

Volunteers poured in from across town. Again, materials and labor were freely supplied. George’s fundraising work was tireless. The walls and roof reappeared. But in December, the rafters caved in. Disaster revisited. Hopelessness on stilts.

With the second collapse, the Wayne County community, white and black, rallied to the center’s cause. Local newspaper stories and letters to the editor pleaded: “Let’s help Mrs. George.”

Remarkably, two of Eastern North Carolina’s largest construction companies – R.N. Rouse and D.S. Simmons – erected a shining, immensely functional building, which opened in 1997.

“They’d never done anything so small,” George explained. Like the carpets, windows and furniture donated by local families, the work came from “the goodness of their hearts.”

For over three decades, George has inspired, amazed, suffered with and kept heart and soul together for the Crisis Center. The costs have been high, financial and physical. She had a stroke two years ago. Her doctor asked her to retire. She wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. Carolyn Buffalo has been program director, as volunteer or modestly paid staff member, the entire time.

Lucy Beamon, a tiny woman with a giant smile, has cooked at the center for two decades – often for more than a hundred folks at a time. “We try to fix the meals special,” she noted. “We work hard. I sleep well.”

Irene Diggs, another long-time staff-member, said: “Most don’t want to be bothered with these people. If we don’t reach out, who will?”

Hundreds report that the center has, literally, saved their lives. An older man explained: “When I was drunk and homeless, Miss Adeen would drive around till she found me, day or night.” Another said, “Some people come into your life for a day or a season. She’s been part of my life for 15 years.”

Greg and Dana, a couple we met this month, said they’d want to go to the center even if they weren’t struggling. “It’s a sanctuary, for many, the only place they have.” As Sylvia Barnes of the Goldsboro NAACP put it, “Every single thing they do is out of love.”

The Crisis Center shares more with ennobling caregivers across the state than just a generous heart. The demand for its services, in the past decade, has skyrocketed. Available funding has markedly declined. They were forced to close an immensely successful transitional housing program because they ran out of money.

They get no support from the city, county or state. They operate on a shoestring budget, too thin to mention. Although churches, small and large, line Slocumb Street, almost none supports the center.

Even those willing to dedicate their entire lives to their fellows often can’t get the support they need from the rest of us to do the job.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law and director of the school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. He doesn’t speak for UNC.

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