Susan Bulger is wiping down long, plastic picnic tables inside a converted warehouse where minutes before, groups of friends shared breakfasts of biscuits and hash browns.
“I do a little bit of everything here,” Susan says. “I clean up, I do whatever I can. This is such a good place. It’s like going to church. This is my church.”
Susan has known hard times. She has been homeless and struggled with illness. But since she came to Raleigh a year and a half ago, she has found a job at a deli and a rooming house to live in.
She volunteers at the Oak City Outreach Center every weekend.
“This place has a beautiful, wonderful, accepting spirit,” Susan says.
It’s been a year since Raleigh cops threatened to arrest a local minister and volunteers for sharing food
with people in Moore Square Park. But this morning, it’s clear that the ugly memory of what the Rev. Hugh Hollowell called “Biscuitgate” is fading.
In a statement, Love Wins Ministries’ Hollowell calls Raleigh a “compassionate, generous, kind city.” When his “Biscuitgate” blog post went viral last summer, “a mirror was held up to us in this city,” he says, “and we did not like what we saw.”
“When Raleigh realized they were not acting compassionate, or kind, or generous, they changed that,” Hollowell's statement said.
Hundreds of people came together to form a task force
to address what had turned into a problem: charitable groups sharing food with hungry, homeless and transient people in the city’s public parks.
City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin attended the task force meetings.
“It’s the best thing we’ve done,” Baldwin said. “There were a lot of tense phone calls, a lot of frustration. But everyone got involved, and there’s been a real evolution from people working together. It had to happen organically and now people have a lot of ownership in it because they were all part of the process."
The Oak City Outreach Center emerged
from the work of the task force. It is funded by the City of Raleigh and run in coordination with the Raleigh/Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness and various charitable groups and it opened June 14.
Since then, 10, 453 meals have been served to 7,803 people, with the help of 832 volunteers according to Shana Overdorf, the executive director of the Partnership to End Homelessness. Numbers are collected and reported every weekend by Catholic Charities of the Diocese, the group the Partnership selected to run and oversee the Center.
“So far it’s mostly been men,” Overdorf says. “But we’re seeing more and more school-age children and families coming in.”
Overdorf says she hopes that in addition to providing meals, the Center will become a place to connect people to needed services, a smaller— and temporary— version of the City’s long-term vision of a comprehensive, permanent outreach center to serve Raleigh’s homeless and indigent populations.
Hollowell said he is “a little worried” about the Center’s temporary status, but he calls it “temporary with a plan.” He says the City has shown its collective will to do good.
William is another staple at the Oak City Outreach Center. He comes every Saturday and Sunday, for all three meals, and says the Center is a place for people who have nowhere else to go to “regroup themselves” on the weekends.
“It helps people get out of homelessness without getting weary,” William says. “You meet people from all walks of life and one of the most exciting things is seeing how they grow and leave this place. We help each other with our problems. You feel a lot of warmth here.”