Updated February 19, 2021 - 12:33 pm
Homeless veteran Zakee Muhammad doesn’t have a lot of options when it comes to finding a place to sleep.
So, every few days, when he can’t find shelter at a friend’s house, he rests his head on the concrete outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Center in North Las Vegas. The 56-year-old Army veteran literally sleeps in the shadow of a statue of the slain civil rights leader.
“The only problem I have, I just don’t have a roof over the top of my head, but I have slept here for many years,” Muhammad said. “Snow and everything else.”
Muhammad chose the sleeping spot by chance, but it proved to be a wise decision. The employees and volunteers at the senior center have taken him under their wings. They have fed him; they have brought him blankets and pillows. They have even gotten him medical treatment for a chronic hip ailment, and they have tried to get him home to his family in Richmond, Virginia.
“He’s lost his identification and, through the pandemic, it has been hard to get an ID for him,” senior center Director Byron Goynes said. “If he can get his ID, he can actually make his way home to Richmond. So that is what we are trying to do at the center — trying to help him out through our goodwill and our outreach to the community.”
The center was built in 1998 and designed to be an “economic engine within the African American community,” Goynes said. Their work aims to further King’s legacy.
“It has become a beacon of light, a beacon of hope, and a place where people can come and gather,” he said.
A recent expansion
Hundreds of Southern Nevada residents seek services at the 2420 N. Martin Luther King Blvd. center monthly, despite the COVID-19 pandemic canceling most of its gatherings.
Many are seniors simply in need of companionship or a healthy meal. Some clients receive access to social services and health care, including rental assistance programs.
“Everything from bingo to crafts,” Goynes said. “We have dancing, exercise classes here. We have a board room for the seniors to go in and use, services for veterans and volunteers, so just a number of activities to keep seniors engaged and keep them active.”
Social gatherings have been on hold at the center since the pandemic started. But staff members have stayed in touch with all their clients online and held many virtual events, Goynes said.
“That is one of the biggest obstacles we have faced,” he said. “We’ve had that connection and love, and with (the pandemic) it has kind of been like a cord being broken. We are doing what we can to keep everyone connected through social media and technology.”
A number of community leaders were crucial in getting the center up and running. Clark County Commissioner William McCurdy II said longtime community activist Hazel Geran and former county Commissioner Yvonne Atkinson Gates were driving forces in getting it built. The land was donated by the late U.S. Sen. Chic Hecht. Former Commissioner Lawrence Weekly also played a critical role in a $7.1 million expansion completed in October.
“We literally doubled the senior center’s capacity, serving over 60 people a day with the old kitchen to now, where we can do over 200 meals a day,” McCurdy said. “We expanded the auditorium to seat over 200 people.”
The center is operated by the Economic Opportunity Board of Clark County and is part of the Clark County Community Resource Center campus.
‘It means a lot’
At a food distribution event at the center on Feb. 5, Las Vegas resident Patricia Bland, 68, said the center is an important part of her life. She first stopped by after a long hospital stay, after a senior she met at a dollar store recommended it.
“It means a lot to me because I enjoy it,” she said. “I like playing cards, and I enjoy people, because I’m a people person.”
Tim Smith, 60, is a veteran who lives near the center. He said the staff has been friendly and welcoming to him and his wife.
“They even have classes,” Smith said at the Feb. 5 event. “They called us on the telephone and said, ‘If you need resources, come on down.’ I said, ‘That is awesome.’”
Center employee Lester Johnson, an assistant chef, said meals are delivered to seniors at their homes five days a week through partnerships with community service providers like Three Square and the Culinary union. The center also holds a food distribution event for seniors once a month in the parking lot of the center near West Carey Avenue.
“We will never let anyone in this community be without food,” Johnson said. “Bottom line is, they can come here not just for food but for help.”
The center’s lead chef, Archye Jett, said she takes pride in working at the center. It is aptly named, she said, in light of the amount of help given to those in need.
“For the seniors this is really, really important,” Jett said.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Hazel Geran.