Saturday was a postcard day in January, and at the Oak City Outreach Center in downtown Raleigh, it felt like a block party. Inside and outside, folks were bouncing on their toes, an amplified street preacher was going strong in the parking lot and, when he took a break, a guy with a guitar jumped in to sing “Lean On Me.” Several hundred men, women and children were enjoying one another’s companyand a generous supply of donated food and clothing.

For the homeless and the needy, and the dozens of volunteers on hand to help them, it was splendid.

I was drawn there because of the $25,000 challenge grant being offered by a pair of Raleigh nonprofits for the best idea to improve the quality of the food served at the center and at other sites for the poor around Wake County.

The Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation, whose mission is to develop a new generation of socially conscious leaders, teamed up with Clark’s Promise, which puts nurses on the street to aid the homeless. The Hahn foundation honors the generosity of the 29-year-old Raleigh activist killed three years ago by a deranged friend. Clark’s Promise was established in memory of Clark Grew, known for his mission work until his death in 2009 at age 24.

The foundation has focused on the lack of healthy food as a poverty issue, a special interest of Jamie Hahn’s. It’s a problem that resonates in Raleigh, with our thriving restaurant scene and so many of Jamie’s generation working around food and valuing it.

The idea of the challenge is to draw on their knowledge of food supply, including local farms, to get more fresh vegetables, fruits and nutritious foods to the table.

Beyond that, says Alexis Trost, the foundation’s executive director, it’s intended to forge relationships between givers and recipients and build awareness of the problems faced by the homeless.

“Food is an intimate way of engaging people,” she says. “On both sides.”

Details are on the foundation’s website ( There’s a meeting at the center at 6 p.m. on Jan. 21 to answer questions and serve as a networking opportunity for individuals and groups with ideas.

So let me step back. That the Oak City center even exists should be thrilling to anyone who’s worked with the homeless in Raleigh over the years or watched as the city kept pushing them asideuntil Aug. 24, 2013.

That was the Saturday that Raleigh police officers threatened to arrest the do-gooders who distributed food to the needy on weekends in Moore Square. Realize that weekends are when the kids don’t eat at school and the churches don’t open their soup kitchens. An ad hoc bunch of volunteers and ministries was filling the gap.

But the city had other ideas for Moore Square, including upscale development all around. The poor weren’t in the plan.

Then somebody gave the wrong order.

Raleigh found a heart that day. Out of it came the center, which has been open for 19 months serving breakfast, lunch and dinnera total of 114,931 meals given to 300–500 people on any given weekend by dozens of groups and individual volunteers.

The City Council established the center in a temporary structure behind the old Salvation Army building off Moore Square, which the city also owns. The Raleigh-Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness, an alliance of government and nonprofit agencies, runs it. Catholic Charities coordinates the donations.

If that sounds cumbersome, it isn’t. On Saturday, food and clothing were in abundance thanks to Brown Bag Ministries, based in Apex. Other, smaller groups offered toiletries or, in the case of preacher James Davis, an encouraging word.

About the food: Inside, it was chili with rice, cornbread and trifle for dessert at sit-down tables, with loads of rolls; outside, there were bagged burgers to go from Cook Out. It was plentiful, but heavy on the starch and light on veggies and fruit.

By the way, there’s no kitchen at the center, and no refrigeration, which doesn’t help. Much of the food that volunteers bring is paid for out of their pockets at a local grocery. There’s got to be a better way.

But my purpose isn’t to criticize. The city has plans for a permanent, multiservice center in the next 24–36 months, says Shana Overdorf, the partnership’s director. A kitchen and laundry facilities are penciled in. It’s huge progress from the bad old days in the ’90s when Raleigh cut off aid to the first homeless shelter that opened downtown and instead shipped the homeless to an abandoned warehouse out on South Wilmington Street.

I returned on Sunday to visit with friends who are part of Food 4 Thought, a small nonprofit in its ninth year of distributing food to the needy every Sunday, first in Moore Square and now at the center.

Food 4 Thought is the one group that gives away not meals but groceriesspecifically, the unsold but perfectly good fruits, vegetables, salads and other goodies that Trader Joe’s donates the same day.

Dee O’Neal Pickering, a member of Food 4 Thought, is proud that they were on the frontlines with the homeless when the city wasn’t. I asked her how the center is faring. “I think it’s been absolutely wonderful,” she said. “The folks have bathrooms, they have a place to wash their hands. It’s heated in winter.”

Good point, because Sunday was cold and raw.

I told her about the festive atmosphere the day before. “That’s the way it is most weekends,” she responded. She paused and smiled. “It’s like family down there.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “The heart of the city”