Room at the inn
DENTON — It was mid-December 2009 and North Texas was experiencing a spate of cold nights. Warm and safe inside her Denton home, Betty Kay couldn’t sleep.
The director at a local soup kitchen kept thinking about the men and women huddled under bridge overpasses and makeshift cardboard homes as they tried to brave the elements.
“I knew a lot of them by name and would say, ‘I’m going to find a place where you can go. I promise,’” Kay remembered. “But it took a long time. I didn’t know where to start.”
With snow and ice forecasted, Kay and fellow Immaculate Conception parishioner Sara Carey asked Monsignor Charles King if he would open the doors of their church to the homeless.
“He said it was the right thing to do,” the advocate recalled. “We opened the next night and we’ve been opened ever since in various locations.”
The dozen or so transients who arrived at Immaculate Conception Church to escape freezing temperatures that evening slept on pews as Kay and others supervised. Parishioners embraced the quickly-organized outreach program that was later named in memory of Msgr. King, who passed away in 2011.
“We always say he’s watching over us,” suggested Kay, executive director of the Msgr. Charles King Outreach Center. “I think he’d love what the center has become.”
Eventually, the Msgr. King Outreach Center — now an ecumenical, nonprofit charity — found a permanent home two years ago in Denton’s former animal shelter leased from the city for $1 a year. Remodeled and equipped with bunk beds, a family room, showers, and bathrooms, the building can sleep 91 people. It’s open on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights or when the temperatures dip below 32 degrees or above 100 degrees.
“We’ve had children as young as two days old and senior citizens as old as 82,” Kay explained. “We also take their pets.” Outdoor kennels, salvaged from the building’s original purpose, offer that convenience.
The executive director tries to make a personal connection with many of the people who walk through the door. A Denton college student, who stayed at the shelter every time it was open, is a vivid memory.
“He’d come in, take a shower, and go to school. I don’t think the university knew he was homeless,” Kay assumed. “After graduation, he moved to New York City and got a job paying $100,000. I heard from him for a while. People I met at the shelter are always calling from different states to tell me what’s going on in their lives.”
Debbie Millican oversees the 40 active volunteers who help in the kitchen and sleeping areas. A tasty evening meal, provided by Our Daily Bread soup kitchen, is served Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Used to people and their problems, the former city administrator believes homelessness is a reality most people choose to ignore. “No matter how much you don’t like them or don’t want to see them, they exist,” she pointed out. “And there aren’t many of us on this planet who aren’t one paycheck away from the same situation.”
The plight of older women, who walk the streets aimlessly during the day and are targets for crime, really tug at her heart.
“They bother me the most because I’m older,” said the 66-year-old. “I got up one morning and found a lady sitting in her chair sobbing. She had dementia and didn’t know where she was or what she was going to do. And there was nothing we could do to help her.”
Some shelter occupants made one mistake in life and ended up losing their livelihood, families, and homes.
“So they end up on the streets,” Millican added. “When you get to know them, they’re good people.”
The shelter opens its doors at 6:30 p.m. and many of the exhausted homeless are in bed by 8 p.m. When the alarm goes off at 7:30 the next morning, volunteer Richard Wright prepares them a light breakfast. Healthier men and women are assigned chores to ensure the floors are swept, bathrooms cleaned, and the trash is taken out.
“There’s a certain magnetism to this work,” admitted Wright who began helping at the center last August as part of his training to become a permanent deacon for the diocese. “These people are kind and extremely grateful. They just had an unfortunate turn in life or have some health issues.”
The dedication of fellow volunteers is also impressive. When meteorologists predicted freezing temperatures on a night when the center was not open, Wright was surprised how many individuals flocked to the shelter with food, “and then worked through the night on short notice. Msgr. King must have been an extremely charitable person and people want to continue that legacy in his honor.”
The late pastor’s concern for the poor and impoverished in Denton County still inspires. Millican never met Msgr. King.
“But I wish I had. Everyone talks about him with such warmth,” the volunteer coordinator observed. “When you say his name, their faces light up. I think he would be extremely happy about the good work this place does.”
More information about the Msgr. King Outreach Center, including information on volunteering, can be found at www.ourdailybreaddenton.org or by calling 940-206-8683.