Gary and Patti West have been serving the area’s homeless population for more than 30 years.

BY DEBBIE PAGE
drpage.iredellfreenews@gmail.com

Patti and Gary West arrived in Statesville in on December 31, 1989, ready to pursue their passion of working with the homeless through their crisis ministry, Diakonos.

Over the next three decades, this couple has devoted their lives to serving those without shelter, food, and medical and mental health care as well as those recovering from addiction, domestic violence, and other life crises through Diakonos’ Fifth Street Ministries.

Fifth Street is holding a 30th anniversary celebration on Thursday, March 5, at 6 p.m. at the Statesville Civic Center. The community is invited to learn more about Fifth Street Ministry and its history as well as hear the stories of people whose lives have been impacted by their decades of community assistance.

Attendees will have the opportunity to support the organization if they are moved to donate. After the program, the organization will hold a reception to celebrate “being part of a community that really cares,” said Patti.

To reserve a spot, please RSVP by Tuesday, March 3, at 704-872-4045 or email admin@fifthstreetministries.com.

JOURNEY TO FIFTH STREET MINISTRIES

When Gary was the director of a crisis ministry in Yancey County, the couple became interested in working with the homeless through friends who operated shelters in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. In November 1989, a friend made them aware of a shelter in Statesville that was in need of new leadership after losing its United Way funding.

The Wests took the mission of Diakonos, which means “the Lord inspiring His servants to carry out His plan for His people,” to the Statesville community after initially working more broadly as a nonprofit to raise funding to purchase items to distribute to homeless shelters across the Southeast.

Their shift in focus to taking over a financially floundering shelter in Statesville “had a hand greater than ours in it,” according to Patti, who said the move just fell into place.

“We’ve always wanted this to be seen as a community shelter. It’s not something that belongs to Patti and Gary or a particular group,” said Gary, who retired after 20 years with Fifth Street Ministries in 2010. “This is Statesville’s shelter, and we want you to have a sense of ownership of it. I think that idea caught on. More and more people began to respond and volunteer.”

The organization has also been responsive to community requests with things like the special needs room and other programs. “Somebody would come to us with something and say, ‘Reckon Fifth Street could help with this?’ We would just say, ‘Yeah, we can do that’ with no idea of where the money would come from. People just come and help.”

Most clients stay an average of two months, but some stay longer if they have more “hurdles to overcome,” according to Patti.

Case managers help clients identify barriers (transportation, work history, mental health issues, addiction and recovery journey, criminal history, evictions, lack of training or high school diploma, etc.) that keep them from moving forward and come up with a plan to overcome or manage them.

“Some folks are very challenging, others not as much. Most all can benefit from somebody walking with them and providing some guidance and being a support person and holding them accountable,” said Patti.

Those without diplomas can attend a GED program at the nearby Bentley Community Center. The staff also networks with Mitchell Community College and Goodwill to provide job skill assistance.

“We have a better networking relationship in Statesville than we have ever had because of these coalitions and task forces that help us get to know each other and communicate. I think that’s a good thing,” said Patti.

EARLY DAYS

After settling into a house next door to the original Fifth Street shelter with their four children, Patti said their first tasks were to clean, paint, and organize both their home and the shelter, which was then located in the dilapidated Pressley Memorial Church. With the help of some community volunteers, “we got the shelter to a place where people would feel comfortable staying at.”

The battered women’s shelter was in the sanctuary, and the emergency shelter was in the separate educational building. They also had a winter shelter operating November through March at the corner of Front and Mulberry streets.

“We learned lots of lessons that first year. We learned to stretch our compassion in ways we never thought we would. Neither of us had ever really worked in a setting like that,” Patti said.

In July, as Patti cooked the family’s Sunday dinner, one of their shelter guests, “Boss Man,” appeared at the door, hungry and in need of food. He had not eaten since Wednesday because the soup kitchen was closed for the July 4th weekend. After providing him with a meal, several of his friends soon appeared seeking a meal too.

After seeing this need, the Wests started a “supper club” each evening at 5:30 p.m., with anyone in the community in need of a meal dining on picnic tables provided by an area church. Patti said she cooked for an average of 50 people each night. If it rained, they served in several seatings in the small fellowship hall.

West said they had no consistent food source, depending on boxes of hodgepodge “salvage” items from food banks. “Finding vegetables in the boxes was like gold. Meat was non-existent. I made a lot of soups, but we always managed to have enough, even though we would sweat some nights until the last person came through.”

Patti said God’s hand has always been present. “Even though we would be completely out of food, somehow the next day, enough would come in to feed folks the next day.”

In that first spring back in 1990, Costi Kutteh, who is now the mayor of Statesville, dropped in to visit. “He told us, ‘If you do what you are supposed to do, you will get the community’s support.’ ”

Soon the shelter’s financial support started improving, and the United Way restored the shelter’s funding.

BIGGER FACILITY, EXPANDING SERVICES

In the summer of 1990, the consolidation of Statesville City and Iredell County Schools left the nearby Avery Sherrill School vacant. In a miraculous gift, county and school officials leased the building to Diakonos for $30 per year.

“We were gifted something really wonderful,” said Patti.

Even though it was run down, “it was like a Taj Mahal to us,” said Gary.

Going from the tiny kitchen to the school cafeteria “was really wonderful for us,” added Patti. “We thought it was so much space, but we filled it up quickly. The night shelter went year round in the old kindergarten building. Because the leadership running the local soup kitchen was aging out, we took over for them, serving lunch and supper in the cafeteria, as well as breakfast for the shelter guests.”

In its news space, the shelter could house families together. The staff partitioned off classrooms using wire and sheets to give families small cubicles to share, and the battered women’s shelter remained at Pressley Memorial to give them a more secure, separate location.

Fifth Street opened separate men’s and women’s shelter areas and added a clothing closet. In the mid-1990s, Fifth Street created a special needs room to care for dying HIV/AIDS patients who were not accepted for long-term care at area nursing homes. Two died at the facility.

St John’s Lutheran Church volunteers renovated the special needs room and put in a handicapped-accessible bathroom. Medical personnel and others volunteered to help care for patients.

“The community inside and outside came together to help these AIDS patients,” said Patti, who said the Iredell County Health Department did a good job of educating the public about this disease.

MEDICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH HELP

In 1993, Dr. Hans Hansen and his wife volunteered to come in once a month to help folks with their health care needs. After that first night, working until 11 p.m., Hansen quickly realized their visits would need to be a weekly clinic. Hansen soon got other doctors and medical professionals involved.

Patti said they would “trick or treat” at area doctor’s offices, back when doctors could give away samples, to get the medications for clinic doctors to distribute to those needing them. “We literally operated out of big, black trash bags of sample medicines,” said Patti.

In 1995, Fifth Street got a Kate B. Reynolds grant to build the Open Door Clinic, the white building next to the current shelter. Gerald Grant, Wayne Rogers and Grady Lippard headed up the building of the project Habitat for Humanity style. After acquiring more funding, Diakonos expanded the building in 1998 to house a dental clinic.

Both operated until 2007, with Iredell Memorial Hospital helping as “a tremendous supporter, thanks to Arnold Nunnery,” said Patti. “Iredell provided a nurse practitioner, a registered nurse and other positions to see patients during the day, with volunteer physicians coming at night with their office staffs.”

“It really made a dent to providing health care to people who were uninsured.”

In 2007, Gaston Family Health Services got a grant for a federally qualified health center for Iredell County and absorbed Fifth Street’s medical and dental practice, which now operates as Statesville Family Medicine (SFM). Patti went on to serve on this new group’s board of directors.

Fifth Street allowed SFM to use its facilities in return for providing its clients with free medical care and medication, which still continues to this day, even though they now operate in their own facility on Shelton Avenue.

“They are one of the best partners that we have,” said Patti.

The shelter provides mental health assistance through its staff therapist, who offers individual and group therapy. For guests with severe and persistent mental illness, Daymark and PQA are partners. For those in an acute mental health crisis, staff refers them to the Crisis Recovery Center or Davis Regional Medical Center for assistance.

CHILDREN AND WOMEN’S PROGRAMS

In 1998, Ralph McKay, an area anesthesiologist, began volunteering at the shelter. He took an interest in the kids which, with the help of his wife and other volunteers, developed into an after-school program for both shelter and community children.

After McKay and his wife lost their daughter Molly in a car accident in 2000, the couple became even more inspired to help community children to honor Molly, who had a passion for working with children. The Molly McKay Children’s Program continued until 2007, when the Boys & Girls Clubs absorbed the program.

In 2000, Gerald Grant and Billie Bourgeois came to the Wests about the need for a new facility for the women’s shelter. Chandler Bryan also came onto the organization’s board about this time, and in 2002, with their help, My Sister’s House opened on Mother’s Day weekend.

The story of the facility’s name is a special one to Patti, who suffered an abusive first marriage. As she dealt with and escaped from this situation, her sister, Jean Warren, was always there for her. “She encouraged and believed in me,” said Patti. “I wanted people to have what I had at My Sister’s House,” which is named in honor of Warren.

NEW BUILDING

By 2006, Fifth Street was at capacity, and the old school buildings were in such bad shape that a renovation was not feasible. A new, larger building was the only solution, so fundraisers, grants, government agency money, and loans were cobbled together for the new $4.6 million facility, which opened in December of 2008.

The Wests are proud that all debt was paid off on the facility just two years later. “Being debt-free was a great feeling,” said Gary.

The new building and its operation is a collaborative effort of hundreds of donors and volunteers who help folks have a place to eat and sleep and get health care. “This community made that happen,” said Patti.

“Others we know who work with the homeless in other communities have met with a lot of resistance. For the most part, the community has rallied to help Fifth Street. It is what it is today because of the community’s remarkable support.”

COMMUNITY KITCHEN

Fifth Street’s Community Kitchen serves 90,000 meals per year on a $10,000 budget. Second Harvest Food Bank, local grocery store pickups, individual donations, and community food drives supplement the program’s limited budget.

“We just stretch it and make it work,” said Patti. “The cooks are shelter residents, who earn a wage while learning new skills. The majority of the volunteers also work there.”

HELP FOR VETERANS

Fifth Street, Piedmont Veterans Assistance Council, and the Statesville Housing Authority teamed up in 2016 to create the Veterans Transitional Housing Program. PVAC’s Pete Meletis pushed for the program to support homeless veterans.

Statesville Housing Authority renovated the “Heroes House” and provides upkeep. Fifth Street provides program staff, transportation, insurance, and operational funding, and PVAC financially supports the program throughout the year. SHA is leasing the home without charge to the program until 2023.

Following an evaluation process, Fifth Street Ministries selects eligible veterans to enter the transition program to prepare them to move into a home of their own. Veterans receive services to become self-sufficient through learning life skills, job training, and acquiring government benefits.

“Iredell County can be very proud of this,’” said Patti. “These heroes have been through some really tough times. We walk with them to the point of stabilization to open up the door for a lot of successes in their lives.”

PATH HOUSE

The Path House is a place for people who are not ready for the structure and requirements of Fifth Street’s night shelter and residential programs. As the last resort for people out of options, this program is one block away from the main campus on Fifth Street and serves the homeless people living in tent cities in the Statesville area.

At Path House, people can shower, wash their clothes, check email, and have a meal. The focus of the Path House outreach is on those struggling with mental illness and addiction and providing services to people who may not be ready to ask for or accept treatment or counseling.

The house managers visit local tent cities and let people know that they are welcome. Help is available when they are ready to accept it, including health, dental and mental health care, job searches, transportation to appointments, help for getting disability payments, or anything else they need to stabilize their situations.

LOOKING AHEAD

“We have a lot of ideas and dreams for Fifth Street, but we have learned when the time is right, we will know it. It’s a God thing. We gets nudges or strong pushes to move in a certain direction. We respond to needs and change accordingly,” said Patti.

One dream is a group of tiny houses on donated land near the shelter. The project, which would provide housing for guests who have a hard time maintaining shelter on their own, is on the back burner because the Wests lack time to pursue funding with the demands of all their current programs.

The tenants would have the support of shelter staff and get help with medications, food, or other services that the shelter provides while providing them a manageable individual living situation.

One challenge that Fifth Street continues to face is opioid and meth addiction. “Helping people in the midst of addiction is difficult,” said Patti. “We cannot allow people in active addiction at Fifth Street, but we can help them make that first step to recovery by helping them seek treatment.”

“We can help them make a plan, but if they are not ready to seek treatment, they are not ready. We cannot let them stay, but we want them to leave on good terms so when they are ready for recovery, they will come back.”

The Wests are most proud of the values on which Fifth Street operates. “We work hard to treat every person with dignity and respect,” said Patti. “We want them to know that they are loved no matter what — where they have been, what they have done, whatever criminal record, whatever addiction. They are loved regardless.”

“We also try to be involved in the community on issues that affect our residents,” said Patti, including organizations that focus on substance misuse, domestic violence prevention, and re-entry after incarceration.”

“We just don’t want the passion for this mission to die,” said Patti.

WANT TO HELP?

To volunteer at Fifth Street Ministries, contact Heather at 704-872-4045 for opportunities, including kitchen and laundry help, sorting donations, or sharing special skills or projects. “We can always find something for people to do!” said Patti.

For more information on programs or to donate online, visit https://www.fifthstreetministries.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Fifth-Street-Ministries-152049251877/.

1 thought on “Fifth Street Ministries celebrates three decades of lifting up those in crisis

  1. Dr. Joseph Glasgow says:

    Congratulations to Dr. West & wife for a job well done…
    Keep up your efforts.

    Dr. Glasgow

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