A Night Volunteering at Old First Respite Shelter for Homeless Men

In the Press

A Night Volunteering at Old First Respite Shelter for Homeless Men

Louise Crawford
Park Slope Patch
08/01/2011

The night I got back from my recent trip to Europe I ran into Charlotte, a good friend of mine, on Seventh Avenue and she told me that we were going to be having a sleepover date.

Well, not exactly a sleepover date. Charlotte, who is a member of Congregation Beth Elohim, had volunteered us to be Overnight Shelter Hosts at the new homeless respite shelter at Old First.

"You volunteered me to do what?" I said loud and clear standing on the corner of Third Street in front of Cheeburger Cheeburger.

"It'll be fun. We'll stay up all night and talk," she said.

I didn't really know what to say, but I was too jet lagged to get mad. Besides I was more than a little intrigued. Old First Dutch Reformed Church is now operating an overnight shelter for homeless men, offering a meal and a place to sleep on weeknights throughout the summer for 10 to 12 men nightly.

This shelter is a collaboration between Old First, the Park Slope Interfaith Social Justice Network, and CAMBA, a Brooklyn-based social service organization that operates the women’s shelter at the Park Slope Armory.

CAMBA screens the homeless men for the program, provides assistance in running the program and offers access to social services. It is up to Old First to provide the space, volunteers and hot meals. Other congregations from the Park Slope Interfaith Social Justice Network, which include Congregation Beth Elohim, Kolot Chayeinu and St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, also provide volunteers for the shelter.

Needless to say, I didn't have a clue what being an Overnight Shelter Host entailed; neither did Charlotte. As you can imagine, I was nervous about spending the night in a big church with a group of strange men.

That said, I have spent a lot of time in the church (and know the church well) because my daughter took piano lessons there and my son was an organizer of Club Loco, a monthly music event for teens that used to be at the church.

A few days later, I spoke to Charlotte, who apologized for volunteering me and told me that she'd find someone else if necessary. But I assured her that I was game. Whatever it was, it was sure to be an interesting experience. A few days before our shift, a Shelter Volunteer Training guide arrived by E-mail. CAMBA works with the Department of Homeless Services to operate several over-night shelters throughout the city at churches and other religious institutions. The document explained clearly what would be expected of us. We had to arrive and set-up according to the site schedule and "ensure that guests are treated with dignity and respect."

In the document, it also said that we were supposed to prepare, serve and clean-up dinner. Wait a minute, I thought to myself, I didn't sign on to prepare dinner on a hot summer night. But it turned out that another group of Beth Elohim volunteers were doing the cooking. Phew. It did say, however, that we were expected to reinforce shelter rules, including lights-out at 10 p.m. and to make sure that guests clean-up and leave the shelter by 5:30 a.m. Finally, in the morning, we were expected to lock up the church. It sounded a bit like being a camp counselor.

I wondered if these men would be willing to listen to me when I said, "Lights out" at 10 p.m. That wasn't so easy when I was a counselor for a bunch of 12-year-old girls at Camp Naaleh in Dutchess County. I also wondered what we'd talk about. I certainly didn't think it would be appropriate to ask questions about their lives and how they ended up homeless. CAMBA is pretty explicit that volunteers not invade the privacy of those they serve. Still, I wondered if we'd talk during and after dinner or if we were to leave them alone to relax and get ready for bed. Also, how was I to wake these men up at five in the morning? For that matter, would I be able to get up at five in the morning? I will admit that I was a bit apprehensive in the hours before my shift. So was my husband, who was startled to learn that Charlotte and I would be alone with 10 or 11 homeless men in that big church. I assured him that the men were screened by CAMBA and that there was nothing to worry about.

"These guys aren't violent or mentally ill. They've been approved," I told him not knowing what I was talking about. When I got to the church's social room at 7 p.m., Charlotte was already talking to the Evening Coordinator, an Old First Volunteer, who showed us where the cots and sheets were. He introduced us to the Beth Elohim volunteers, who had prepared a delicious dinner of roast chicken, baked potatoes, salad, fruit, lemonade and cookies.

The homeless men, who were arriving by van, had not yet arrived. The Evening Coordinatior showed us the room where would be sleeping right next door to the social room. We stayed in the kitchen until the guests arrived at 7:30. When the multi-age, multi-racial group of 11 men arrived, one of them gave us a manifest with their names on it. The Evening Coordinator left and we watched as the men quietly set up their cots in the social room and made their beds. Quite a few of them had been to the church before and knew the drill. As I watched the quiet dignity with which the men set up their cots and personalized their areas with a chair, a book or a bag, I immediately felt comfortable about spending the night at the church. In the corner of the room, one of the men turned on the television to the Yankees' game—somehow I knew that everything was going to run smoothly because of that game.

Dinner was served soon after and the men clearly enjoyed the delicious meal prepared by the volunteers; they went back for more until there was nothing left. They especially appreciated touches like sour cream, chives and real bacon bits for the baked potatoes. I know I felt a bit awkward during dinner, but the room was noisy with the sound of the fans and TV. The men were extremely polite and a few thanked us for the food and for being there. One of the men, who'd been to Old First the night before, was looking for a big mythology book he'd been reading.

"I studied mythology in college," he told Charlotte, who was eager to find the book. She eventually found it and gave it to the man who was extremely grateful. He read it until lights out.

After dinner (8:30 or so), we helped the other volunteers clear and clean the dishes. Without asking them, some of the homeless men folded up the tables. One man moved the large garbage pail into the kitchen. Many of them pulled up their chairs near the TV to watch the game or just lay down in bed to relax. Everyone was very orderly and respectful of each other. Some seemed to have formed friendships, others were loners. Charlotte and I made our own beds and took a walk around the church. In other parts of the building there was an AlAnon meeting and an AA meeting. We wondered how we'd be sure that everyone left the church.

At 10 p.m., it was time to turn out the lights and we went to the fuse box and did just that. We felt a little nervous about it, but no one seemed to mind. The television stayed on so the men could watch the rest of the game (there had been a rain delay so the game went late). We closed the door to the yard where the men were previously allowed to go to smoke cigarettes and closed the Carroll Street entrance of the church. We went into our room. Since there were no lights except the bathroom lights we, too, had to go to bed. I always read before bed so I was worried that I wouldn't be able to sleep.

"You'll have to tell me your life story," I told Charlotte. We did talk for a few hours and listened to the snoring, coughs, and sneezes of the men in the big room next door. The TV stayed on past midnight and we heard random conversations and some cheers at the end of the game. During the night, it was quiet in the church, though I don't think either of us slept well. I kept waking up wondering what time it was (even though my alarm was set for 5 a.m.). Perhaps I was nervous that someone would enter our room.

In the morning, we turned on the lights at 5 a.m, made coffee and put out fresh fruit. As soon as they got up, the men methodically folded their cots and put their bed sheets in a giant plastic bag. They seemed eager for the coffee.

"I hope it tastes alright," Charlotte said. "It's coffee," one of the men told her.

I watched as the man who read the mythology book ate three or four bananas. They all seemed to enjoy the fresh fruit. One man told me that he has four sons, two in high school and two in college. I was sure that he had a story to tell. Another man, who seemed extremely intelligent, volunteered that he'd been a chemist, but had been out of work for a few years and couldn't afford to live in New York City anymore. He's in a back-to-work program and has been going on job interviews, but he was having difficulty getting a lab job without the right kind of license. One of the men told Charlotte that after the church the men would go back to the CAMBA Center in East New York and have breakfast there.

"It's not a real egg and the sausage is like a hockey puck," he said. "But it's food."

Quite a few of the men had high praise for the food at Old First.

"Last night's dinner really rocked,' one man said.

"That chicken was delicious," another man chimed in.

Still another said that some of the shelters just have tuna sandwiches and a paper cup of juice for dinner. "Last night's dinner was really something special."

A fleeting closeness had formed between ourselves and some of the men and we said goodbye and wished them well. Walking home in the early morning light, I stopped in at Starbucks for a cup of coffee and felt very fortunate (and a little guilty) to have a little cash to overspend on a cup of coffee.

Returning to my apartment on Third Street I saw it in a new way. Not as a slightly cramped quarters for a family of four, but as a bastion of comfort and stability. Old First is a clean and humane place to spend the night. If it's not unique then these respite shelters aren't as bad as I imagined. Still, it's a very structured life with very little freedom.

Sadly, the number of homeless who slept in homeless shelters in the last fiscal year numbered 113,553. That number is the highest in the city’s history.

It is our obligation as a society to provide somewhere for these people to sleep safely and comfortably at night. My heart ached for these men who have nowhere to call home. To sleep night after night in these shelters is not an easy way to live. Most of the men at Old First seemed capable of work. There must be jobs for those who need and want them.

In the meantime, it is valuable and extremely rewarding to volunteer your time as a Overnight Shelter Host or even to prepare delicious food. It's the least we can do as a community for those in need.

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