An evening conversation: room at the inn?

By Stephen Cameron

Emily Wagner had a good news, bad news kind of week.

The executive director of the Manhattan Emergency Shelter appeared before city commissioners Tuesday night, asking that a loan balance of $54,000 be forgiven.

The original loan of $135,000 was granted in 2008, in order to fund construction of the Caroline Peine Transitional Shelter on South Fourth Street.

Since then, it’s been an ongoing battle – finding enough revenue to operate the shelter and somehow make those loan payments.

Although her audience of five was largely sympathetic, the commission didn’t feel comfortable simply dismissing a debt.

So in the end, they voted to extend the loan for another seven years.

In truth, it was the same as wiping it out altogether, since everyone in the room knew that MESI (Manhattan Emergency Shelter Inc.) won’t likely ever have the cash to pay off the principal.

“It’s more likely that, with cuts from state and federal sources, the shelter will need additional money,” commissioner Karen McCulloh said after the meeting. “That’s the story with all our social service organizations.

“Money is harder to find, there are fund-raisers every week for various good causes, and people only have so much to give. It’s a sad direction, but that’s where we’re going.”

Wagner knows that, of course.

Even as she explained to commissioners how the shelter had fudged a rule just a little by purchasing “residential appliances” – as opposed to commercial, so they could snag a five-year warranty – Wagner conceded that they must row the boat like crazy just to break even.

Like so many other local organizations that need funding assistance to help serve the community — the city’s Social Services Advisory Board lists 11 groups — the emergency shelter’s challenge figures to get tougher, not easier.

For one thing, a staff of paid nightly employees is required for the shelter to remain a 24-hour organization — which naturally remains critical since the police and highway patrol often need space to house people at all hours.

“Besides the drop in funding from outside sources,” McCulloh said, “I feel certain that the number of homeless people in Manhattan and the whole area is higher than the figures we use.

“I’m anxious to see the numbers they get next month (there will be an official homeless count on Jan. 22), and even then, given that it’s winter and so forth, we may not get a true total.”

Wagner, meantime, keeps paddling the boat as fast as she can.

A devoted group of volunteers helps keep the shelter running as a first-class operation, and as her little gimmick with the appliance warranties proves, Wagner is saving every possible penny.

“Like so many of our social service groups, the shelter needs help,” McCulloh said. “The city can chip in, certainly, but there has to be assistance from elsewhere. We have to find other ways.”

Wagner and her staff at least have allies to go with their worries.

Good news and bad news.

It’s that kind of work.

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