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Posted: October 4, 2012 9:15 p.m.

Homeless shelter gets $15k in donations

Update, 5:52 p.m. Friday: The residents of Newton County came to the rescue of the local homeless shelter Friday, donating a combined $14,800 to keep the lights on and the water running.

The Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter, off Turner Lake Circle, was on the verge of having its utilities cut off because it had no money to pay its latest Covington utility bill, which was $5,320.

Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston asked city officials to delay cutting off the utilities and personally pleaded for residents to donate to the shelter.

The generous outpouring will not only take care of the past due bill, but will also pay for the next bill, which is coming next week.

Johnston set up a bank account for the shelter at Newton Federal bank, and there was $8,700 in the account as of about 4:30 p.m. Friday. In addition, two members of the shelter's board of directors donated a combined $6,000 to the shelter directly, and the shelter's executive director, the Rev. Clara Lett, said another person donated $100.

"Personally, I'm just ecstatic," Johnston said Friday afternoon. "But not really surprised. It's what I've said about Covington since my wife and me moved here. I know a bunch of great people in Covington who are willing to help out and step up. Obviously they've done it again.

"I want to offer a huge thank you to the residents for responding like you did. I think it says a ton for the city and county."

Lett said the shelter currently had 67 residents, including around 20 children.

Original story, Thursday: Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston is personally calling upon the community to help the local homeless shelter avoid having its utilities cut off, and is also trying to find a way to prevent the shelter from getting into the same situation again.

The Garden of Gethsemane Homeless Shelter is late on a $5,320 utility bill that was due Sept. 12 for the shelter's three buildings off Turner Lake Circle. The shelter was scheduled to be cut off Tuesday, but Johnston asked City Manager Steve Horton to delay cutting off the shelter's utilities until Monday in an effort to give the shelter more time to seek donations.

The mayor also personally set up an account at Newton Federal bank specifically for donations for the shelter's utility bill. To donate, people can make a check or cash donation payable to the "Covington Homeless Shelter." Donations can be made at any branch.

Johnston is undertaking the effort mainly for the sake of several small children who are currently staying at the shelter.

"This is a personal plea from me. The city is not getting involved," Johnston said Thursday.

The shelter has already been late on eight separate payments in 2012, according to Covington Finance Director Leigh Anne Knight, and has been saved from past cutoffs thanks to donations from local churches, organizations and concerned citizens. The shelter has paid the city $39,254.92 so far in 2012 for utilities.
However, even if the shelter can scrounge up the $5,320, it has another bill coming due in just a few days.

Johnston sees a need for a long-term solution and said he "will be going through a process with the homeless shelter board to reevaluate the operation of the shelter."

The shelter, which has 80 beds but can house a total of 110, generally houses around 60-70 residents but has barely been able to stay open for the past few years.

In addition to the $5,000-plus it owes the city directly, it's also behind on its rent payments to the Covington Housing Authority by $3,500, having not made a payment since February of this year. The rent was dropped this year from $3,000 a month to $500 a month, but the shelter still hasn't been able to make payments.

The shelter also still owes the housing authority $65,735.92 for back rent and utility payments. The $38,735 in back utility payments stem from a period of time from May through December 2009 when the housing authority was making utility payments on the homeless shelter's behalf, before the homeless shelter had ever signed an official lease.

The shelter is run by Executive Director the Rev. Clara Lett, who could not immediately be reached by phone Thursday.

The shelter was originally located in Porterdale, but moved after the city sued the shelter arguing it violated city zoning ordinances. The Covington City Council gave a $1.08 million grant to the housing authority for the purchase and repair of three building off Turner Lake Road. The shelter officially moved into the Covington location in June 2009.

October is Homelessness Awareness Month.

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