In the corner of the Emmaus House food pantry, a knee-high pile of bagged and boxed food donations is set aside, waiting to be packed for next week’s Thanksgiving holiday box distribution. Compared to recent years, the agency's director Robin Marsh said, it’s a meager collection.
“Usually by now, Thanksgiving, you wouldn't be able to walk here. You couldn't walk in,” Marsh said, gesturing to an empty concrete aisle passing through the pantry.
The nonprofit organization's issues go beyond holiday food boxes, Marsh said. Individual and group donations have been on the decline for several years, with food donations dropping nearly 40 percent in the past two years, she said.
As of this past week, she said, the shelter has enough funds to cover the cost of operations and services through the end of the year. But if donations don’t pick up, Marsh said, Emmaus House, the largest food pantry, homeless shelter and soup kitchen in southwest Kansas that has served thousands of residents for 39 years, could have to cut services or possibly even close.
Donations have taken a significant hit even within the last year, Marsh said. In 2017, the shelter received $307,681 in monetary donations and grants, she said, compared to $118,693 so far this year.
The shelter also has seen a drop in funds after losing longtime grants whose distributors wanted to spread support to other organizations, Marsh said. Several years ago, Emmaus House received $120,000 in grants. Today, it receives $20,000, she said.
As of Thursday, Marsh said, Emmaus House had $27,000 in the bank in checking and savings, nearly enough to cover two months of the house's regular expenses at $15,000 a month.
"I don't know that I've ever been in a position where I only had two months left. I have enough money for two months. That's total,” said Marsh, who has run the shelter for 20 years.
Emmaus House is a resource to both the homeless and the hungry, offering shelter and three meals a day to up to 29 residents at a time, daily hot meals and weekly carry-out food packages. It helps people throughout the region, with some driving from Dodge City, Scott City, Ulysses, Leoti and Sublette to pick up food boxes, Marsh said.
Other local food pantries, such as those at the Salvation Army and Genesis Family Health, provide non-perishable food boxes once a month. The Salvation Army also offers perishable items every week, while Emmaus House offers them twice a week.
“There are many people that we are their only means, and we're not supposed to be … For some, this is all they get for the whole week,” Marsh said about Emmaus House.
Last year, the shelter fed over 34,000 people through food boxes and daily hot meals and provided shelter to 172 people for 2,298 nights. Emmaus House has fed about 24,600 people this year, averaging 800 food boxes a month.
Besides general operations expenses, the organization also often runs into costly maintenance issues, Marsh said. At least a dozen people stay in the house each month, and necessary appliances, from the washing machine to the microwave to the freezer, break down or need replacements often due to overuse, she said.
The more people that stay at the shelter, the higher the utilities costs, said Glenda Hopkins, a member of the Emmaus House board of directors.
If Emmaus House closed, Garden City would face a huge problem with the loss of a stable homeless shelter, forcing many people back on the streets, said Garden City Salvation Army co-Capt. Joyce Curran. There would be a shift, she said, and residents would have to grapple with a problem many do not want to recognize.
Hopkins echoed the sentiment, adding that the loss of the Emmaus House food bank would leave both families and elderly clients without food. If closed, she said, the impact would be felt throughout the region.
"I think people would be seriously surprised at how it would be impacted. More people sleeping in town, by garages, backyards, wherever they could go ... There'd probably be a higher crime rate for people trying to get money for food or a place to stay ... I don't think the people in town would be very happy about the outcome if we closed," Hopkins said.
Garden City’s other prominent food banks, the Salvation Army and Genesis Family Health, are faring better, but could always use more donations, officials said.
Both food banks operate on a smaller scale than Emmaus House and do not offer shelter or hot meals, acting instead as a focal point for basic resources. The Salvation Army distributes about 100 nonperishable food boxes a month, about 120 to 130 a month during the holiday season and 800 to 900 bags of produce a month. Genesis distributes about 15 nonperishable food boxes a month and 15 to 20 a month during the holiday season.
Both agencies offer nonperishable items to Finney County residents, though Genesis has locations and pantries in other nearby counties, Joyce Curran and Evans said.
Joyce Curran said the Salvation Army had not seen the recent dip in individual donations that Emmaus House had experienced, though Rosa Evans, Genesis’ service navigator, said she had noticed a slight drop off, but nothing that had hit the pantry significantly.
Local nonprofits across the board are facing financial struggles to some degree, said Deb Oyler, executive director of the Finney County United Way, but she suspected the issue may be a lack of communication to the public about organizations' needs or that residents had to choose to support a few out of many, many entities asking for help. She said Garden City is a giving community, and if residents know about a need, they will respond.
The Salvation Army’s food pantry is in need of canned goods and nonperishable items like cereal, canned vegetables, soups and boxed meals like Hamburger Helper, said Garden City Salvation Army co-Capt. Jeff Curran. Monetary donations and volunteers to stock shelves were also more than welcome, he said.
Genesis' food pantry could use more pasta and soup products, Evans said. It will be collecting donations for its Thanksgiving boxes through early next week, accepting turkeys, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, rolls and desserts. Evans said she expects the initiative to benefit about 25 families.
Both pantries had received boosts moving into November, with October’s United Way Trick or Treat So Others Can Eat food drive, which donated food and other items to many local charities, not including Emmaus House. Genesis also has received other recent group donations, such as one from Wheatland Electric.
On Tuesday, Emmaus House will hand out its Thanksgiving food boxes, buying any food it did receive through donations. For Christmas holiday boxes, the shelter will need ham, chicken, canned corn, canned green beans, instant potatoes, soup and cake and cookie mixes by Dec. 17.
Marsh said Emmaus House staff and board members are seeking grant options and have been asking for community financial support for two months, reaching out to churches, partnering with businesses for fundraisers and calling for help on the radio and social media. She said she wasn’t sure what more to do.
Hopkins said the the shelter had left a staff position unfilled last year, recently held a fundraiser at Papa John's and had spent months applying for grants and corporate charitable programs. They had reached out to local churches for additional support and placed advertisements in The Telegram and with local radio stations asking for community support.
A surge of donations could save the house, Marsh said, and a widespread commitment to monthly donations could be a long-term solution.
“You realize what the population is in Garden City, and if we could have that many people donating, say, $5 a month, that would sustain us,” Marsh said. “What's $5?”
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