The homeless men watch and study us. They stand beside the rows and rows of bunk beds. Nearly 200 beds are in this 100 year old Hartford church turned shelter. The walls are framed by lockers. Each locker has a piece of masking tape with a name scribbled in a black Sharpie identifying where each man’s few possessions are stored.
I am equally curious about these church residents as they are of me, my nine year-old son, husband, and all the other families that have come this evening to volunteer. Some of us drove in our Audi’s and fancy SUVs, others in shiny new hybrids and mini vans. We passed large homes still decorated with elaborate Christmas light displays to come into the city for a few hours to do some good, help our sons earn another Cub Scout merit badge and maybe teach some humility.
I want to interview each of these men, hear their stories and find out how they got here. I wonder how far any of us are to slipping away from our possessions, our livelihood, and our purpose in life. There is a slippery slope we all fret about, usually on a Sunday night before a long work week: I hope I can keep it all together.
The boys from Cub Scout Pack 356 pour Styrofoam cups full of milk, display juice boxes, set up aluminum pans brimming with fried chicken, ham, meatloaf, pasta, peas and carrots.
Our sons are dressed in blue uniforms with ironed on badges that showcase their merits in fishing, knife safety and camping. They serve these men. Little latex gloved hands stabbing their utensil at a chicken leg and dangling it onto a flimsy paper plate to a grateful nod.
As I watch my son serve meatloaf, I notice a staff member busily working, making sure empty pans of food are refilled.
I say hello and introduce myself offering my hand. He offers me a fist pump and explains, “It’s flu season!”
Chris was an intern turned employee and as we talk I learn that he was once homeless and lived at this very shelter.
“In 2008 I was a superintendent at an apartment building. I got free rent and a salary to maintain the building. But the economy turned, I was laid off and didn’t have the $700 a month to pay for my apartment.”
No family to turn to, Chris came to the shelter and eventually was offered a job.
Chris explains that January through March is “No Freeze,” a program that welcomes any man or woman, regardless if they are inebriated, to save them from the cold. In fact, years earlier, the priest of the church opened the front door to discover a homeless man who had frozen to death. From that day on, the church began to serve the homeless, eventually becoming a full-time shelter.
Some men are regulars and are assigned a case worker to counsel and provide assistance in finding a job and apartment. There are a few success stories like Chris, but it is hard to make these men regulars.
“Some people just can’t live in institutional style living. They’d rather live on the street where they have their own space and sense of privacy,” explains Chris.
I understand that. I remember the strange October snow storm four years ago that left us powerless and without water for nearly two weeks. My son and I decided to drive to the town high school for showers. When I saw the people living on cots in the gym and the line of people waiting for a shower we decided to leave. We drove around, leaving town to discover an open McDonald’s. It was no mirage, but a real oasis, a beacon of hope with French fries and shakes.
Chris and I fist pump good bye and I can tell my husband is eager to leave and return to our home to make a fire and settle in front of our television.
On the ride home my son comments on one young man in flip flops and shaggy blond hair. I had a sense that he had a mother who loved him and some wrong decisions brought him to the shelter.
“He looked like my camp counselor Jack.”
“He did look like Jack didn’t he?”
“Why do you think he is homeless,” my son asks.
“I suspect he’s on drugs babe. It’s a scary, very bad thing. It can take your life away and I bet his family gave him an ultimatum. If you don’t give up drugs we won’t help you.”
“Why won’t his family help him?”
“They probably have tried and he won’t take the help. He might have stolen from his parents or lied to them. That is hard for a parent to accept.”
I wonder if Shawn is understanding what I am explaining when he asks, “Do you think he’s Jack’s age?”
“Yea, he’s around twenty years-old.”
My son was quiet for a moment looking out the window, “I’d like to go back there again and serve food.”
We drove up our driveway, our little bubble on the hill, a string of Christmas lights on the porch welcoming us home.