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Homeless shelter faces financial woes
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Less than a week before Christmas, Pastor Clara Lett, director of the Garden of Gethsemane homeless shelter, is worrying if the shelter will be able to keep its doors open.

"Is the shelter in danger of closing? I don’t know," Lett said Tuesday. "I haven’t heard anything… we just don’t know."

The shelter has seen donations drop this year. General Mills cut the amount they typically gave and the Porter Foundation sent Lett a letter Monday saying they were unable to give to the shelter this year. Also, $24,000 which was awarded by the state to reimburse the shelter for money already spent has yet to show up.

"Yes, the state awarded us $24,000 but we haven’t got a dime of it yet," said Lett. "Most people don’t realize that money is to reimburse us for what we’ve spent. We’re hoping one day we’ll get reimbursed for the phones, gas, groceries — stuff like that — but so far, we haven’t."

Additionally, the shelter started out in a hole because of a $38,000 bill to the Covington Housing Authority, its landlord. The bill is for utility payments that the housing authority paid for several months while the lease was still in their name but the shelter was already operating in the building. The lease was placed in the shelter’s name in February of this year, but they moved into the building in June 2009.

"Instead of starting out fresh we started out in a hole and we’ve been trying to dig our way out," she said. "We don’t even have heat in the men’s building now," said Lett. "We can’t afford it. The women’s area went without air all summer until we could get up $1,000 for a unit and we paid for that, not the housing authority… This is the first shelter and a lot of people, myself included, didn’t think of a lot of things as far as overhead costs go," said Lett. "The only thing we can do is pay the (current) utilities."

The shelter is supposed to pay $3,000 a month in rent, but according to Lett, that amount was supposed to include insurance and maintenance of the 30-plus-year-old building, but they have been making repairs on their own.

Lett admitted that the shelter is behind on rent. According to Greg Williams, executive director for the housing authority, the shelter’s lease runs from Jan. 1 to Jan. 1, with a $36,000 a year rent. They have paid $9,000 this year in rent.

"The board of commissioners for the housing authority has not taken any action whatsoever in regard to the homeless shelter," said Williams. "Not a renewal, eviction, cancellation, absolutely no action. And I cannot comment on when, or if, the board will discuss (giving the shelter) another contract."

The shelter is home to 51 residents. They have beds for 80 and with cots and fold-outs can accommodate 110. Residents who do receive some sort of income are required to pay $12.50 per day, but Lett won’t turn away those who cannot pay.

"I know what good work Clara does," said former Covington Mayor Sam Ramsey, who donated a check to the shelter Tuesday morning. "I honestly don’t know what the city and county would do if we didn’t have Clara to look after people like she does, and she takes very little back for herself… A lot of people in the county have been very good to support her and she’s finding that a lot of foundations that have been supporting her have fallen on hard times and have to cut back right when she needs more help than ever," he said.

"I believe that charity begins at home," continued Ramsey. "And anyone that’s able to help, I hope they will, because she certainly is deserving."

The closest homeless shelter outside of the Covington facility is in Atlanta. People are dropped off here by police if they see them sleeping in their cars or outside. Oftentimes someone at the hospital may call the shelter in search of a warm bed for someone in need, and the Department of Family and Children Services refers families to the shelter. There are currently eight children there, ranging from teenagers to infants.

"I worry about the people if something happens to the shelter," said Lett. "I have a home to go to. I have a bed to get in. What will they do?"

Lett reports to the Department of Community Affairs and they require that every meal, every bar of soap, every diaper used is accounted for and they check Lett’s records annually to ensure that the shelter is performing as it should.

"If we closed, they would be outside," said Lett. "When the sheriff’s office picks them up at night, where would they go? When the hospital calls us, where will they go? When DFCS sends referrals for families and the police department goes to the Wal-Mart parking lot in Conyers where people are sleeping in their cars — where are they gonna’ go? Where are they going to take them to?" asked Lett. "It will affect a lot of people and I pray that it doesn’t happen. This ain’t about me. This is a community service and it’s because of the community that it has worked. We just need to pray that we can keep it going."

To donate to the Garden of Gethsemane, mail checks or drop them off at 7133 Turner Lake Circle, Covington, GA 30014.