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Financial woes haunt women’s shelter

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By Laura Newman

SMITHFIELD, N.C. — For the women and men of Johnston County who have nowhere to turn, one address has provided comfort: The Smithfield Rescue Mission.

But recent financial difficulty has put the women’s shelter at risk of closing, and its operators are asking the community for help.

The men’s shelter, opened in 1978, and the newer women’s shelter, opened in 1995, provide short and medium-term accommodation and a fresh start for men and women with difficult pasts that often include broken families, criminal behavior and substance abuse.

Until 2004, the women’s shelter was located on Dundee Street, says Margie Olsen, who founded the Smithfield Rescue Mission with her husband, Paul, after a year-long training program with a group now called the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions.

The couple was not satisfied with the facility because it was small, only capable of comfortably accommodating three women at a time, and it was “drug-infested,” Olsen says.

“It was hard to accomplish anything with our ladies there,” she says.

So they closed the shelter in 2004 and spent the next six months working on acquiring a better facility.

Last September, the Olsens took out a mortgage on a $134,000 house in the outskirts of Smithfield, at 2255 Swift Creek Road, and were able to reopen the shelter, which can now comfortably house up to six women at a time.

But the higher mortgage, additional utility costs and more expensive insurance have put a strain on the rescue mission’s budget, Olsen says.

Decreased funding, higher transportation costs related to the new facility’s less central location, and the additional salary for a newly-hired women’s shelter director also contribute to the rescue mission’s financial problems.

“It’s really stretching us,” says Olsen. “But we’re going to do everything in our power to keep it going.”

A few years ago, United Way of Johnston County provided $25,000 a year in support, but now gives only $500 a month for operating expenses, she says.

The shelter also receives a small amount, $5,000 a year, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Other than that, the shelter depends on donations, Olsen says.

In these difficult times, the Olsens are turning for increased support to the community, including churches, businesses and individuals.

“What we really need,” Olsen says, “is community support on a regular basis.”

Monthly donations would help keep the shelter going, she says.

The Olsens also opened the Ark Christian Bookstore two years ago to help make money for their shelter, but the bookstore has not yet turned a profit.

“It may do all right,” Olsen says, “But it does take a little time to get a business established.”

The shelter has helped a lot of people, she says.

“We have to depend on the goodness of the community to make sure we can continue,” Olsen says.

In addition to providing housing, the shelter offers self-help programs, such as nutrition classes, gospel services and counseling, and will soon start using the “12-step” Christian program used to combat alcoholism and drug abuse.

The rescue mission requires its residents to be alcohol-and-drug-free when they check in, and remain that way throughout their stay. The shelter conducts random drug testing to ensure the policy is met.

On average, men stay for three weeks to a month, and women stay for two to four months, Olsen says.

The Olsens also help their residents find jobs and require them to save money.

“That way,” Olsen says, “they build up their little nest egg.”

To make sure residents are serious about bettering their lives, the Olsens sometimes conduct a screening process.

And residents who do not make progress can be told to leave, she says.

“It seems cruel,” Olsen says, “but you have to do it because you have to give someone else a chance who is really in need.”

The rescue mission is the only shelter the Olsens know of in Johnston County, and while others have opened, they often close quickly due to financial or management trouble.

The Olsens are working to ensure the rescue mission does not meet the same fate.

“It’s something I think we’ll pass, but it’s scary” she says. “We have a faith in a big God.”

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