Wake County

Hurdle becomes hand up as program serves milestone meal

The Oak City Outreach Center started serving meals on June 14, 2014. Over the next 5 weekends, 4,829 meals were plated. Last weekend, the Center served its 100,000th meal.
The Oak City Outreach Center started serving meals on June 14, 2014. Over the next 5 weekends, 4,829 meals were plated. Last weekend, the Center served its 100,000th meal. cseward@newsobserver.com

More than a hundred people lined up for Thanksgiving-style turkey lunches and food to go Sunday afternoon at the Oak City Outreach Center, a hub for the needy born of a conflict over volunteers offering food to hungry people in Moore Square Park.

The Oak City Outreach Center, which opened in June 2014 in a former Salvation Army warehouse across the street from the park, reached a milestone earlier this month, serving its 100,000th meal.

The center opened after police began discouraging volunteers from handing out food in the park or from surrounding sidewalks. Some organizations had been serving food at the park for years.

Though the food service has moved indoors and has government approval, volunteers remain at its heart. About four dozen groups – some connected to churches and some not – sign up to provide and serve meals and hand out fresh produce on weekends. Most of the groups who were giving out food at the park moved their work to the center, said Shana Overdorf, director of the Raleigh/Wake County Partnership to End Homelessness. Catholic Charities coordinates the volunteers.

Todd Pratt, a member of the Human Beans Together volunteer group, said the conflict with the city “was one of those blessing in disguise type of things,” that resulted in the center’s creation. “The Mayor (Nancy McFarlane) and the city council were instrumental in making this happen,” said Pratt, 41, of Raleigh.

Human Beans Together got its start in 2012, when Donald Zepp of Wendell, his wife and son brought a pot of soup to Moore Square. Zepp was skeptical that anyone would take soup from strangers, but they ran out of food quickly. The next week, they returned with a bigger pot of soup.

Zepp, 70, says Human Beans, now a mainstay at center, remains a loose connection of volunteers. About 50 people take turns bringing food and serving, Zepp said. It also collects donations from Whole Foods, which meant that part of Sunday’s spread included prepared foods such as yogurt, pizza, and salad ready for takeout.

“The goal is simple,” he said. “To bring help to people.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that homelessness in North Carolina dropped an estimated 7 percent this year. The numbers are based on a nationwide count of homeless people on a single night in January.

Wake County counted 904 homeless this year, down from 1,170 in 2014, Overdorf said. But a changing definition of homelessness accounted for most of the decline, Overdorf said. People in drug and alcohol recovery, about 200 people in Wake, weren’t included in the survey this year, she said.

The center itself may represent a transition to a grander vision – a place where homeless people can be connected to community services during the weekdays as well as finding food on weekends. The city and county are looking for a site, and the center may open within the next two years, Overdorf said.

Just being indoors has advantages over waiting in the park for food.

Tosheria Savage is the center coordinator who plans the weekend food service. She walked from table to table Sunday afternoon, asking people who had not joined the line for food if they needed help.

Terry McAllister, 47, said he comes to the center about twice a month. McAllister said he works, but has no home. He used to pick up food served in the park on weekends, said the center offered welcome shelter on days like Sunday, when a light rain was falling

“This is nice,” he said.

Looking to the Thanksgiving holiday, the center distributed information for finding donated dinners on Thursday. The center will not be open on Thanksgiving, but will serve meals Friday.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner