Homelessness: Our Neighbor's Place
With the current rate of homelessness in Erie County, one organization is trying to help.
"Do you need something?" the man asks me. "You look lost."
"Oh," I respond awkwardly, "I always look kinda lost."
"So other people have told you that, huh? I hoped I wasn't …"
"No," I reassure him. "When I look lost, people tend to help me, like you did."
So starts my conversation with one engaging man outside Our Neighbor's Place, the overflow homeless shelter hosted this week by Church of the Covenant. Every two weeks from November to April, six city churches house 50 to 60 overnight "guests," who are provided a cot, dinner, breakfast, and showers if facilities are available at the host church.
It's Saturday night. I'm early, but several men wait outside the church's basement door, downstairs from the sidewalk I share with my interlocutor, who requests anonymity.
He's the guest — and yet he's the one asking me if I need anything. But Our Neighbor's Place blurs the line between benefactor and beneficiary. And during our 15-minute conversation, the line disappears.
I first heard about these overflow shelters through Adria Johnson, owner of Head Cases Salon, whose family volunteers regularly. Johnson often tells me stories about the people being served; how routinely she's reminded that they're just one or two decisions — or chances — away from those of us living a so-called normal life.
At 7:30, the shelter opens. Mostly men and a few women filter in. I sit at the guest registration desk. Some are new. Most sleep here regularly. A banner displays Matthew 25:34-40, which ends, "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."
And so, all are served.
I'm sitting with Pastor Bob Schell. He doesn't usually register guests here, but that's what's needed this weekend. Talk to Schell even briefly, and you imagine that's how he's lived his entire life: recognizing a need and offering himself in the service of it.
Three years ago, Schell was moved by news reports of people living in a tent city on CSX property near the railroad tracks. "I felt God leading me to go and talk to the people who were living in that grove of trees," he says. "I got to know several of them, and told them, 'if you ever need anything at all, I'd be glad to help you.'"
That fall, the tent city was deemed unsafe and dismantled. Winter threatened. Two people Schell had met, now displaced, called him. "I saw firsthand the need," he recalls. "All shelters were full, both for men and women. I had no place to tell them to go. I had to tell them, 'I'm sorry. I tried. But there isn't anyplace.'"
A year earlier, Schell and Kitty Cancilla, Executive Director of Community Shelter Services (CSS), had discussed the need for an overflow shelter. Cancilla and her husband, Tim Hilton, learned about church-run overflow shelters at a Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania (LAMPa) event in Harrisburg.
Back in Erie, they organized a "call to action," remembers Cancilla. "Everybody thought it was a great idea. Nobody was moving. But I thought, 'we can do this.'"
"There was always somebody saying 'what if some barrier prevents us from doing it?' echoes Schell. "But Kitty said, 'enough talking. Let's do something. We'll solve the problems when they happen.' I stood up at a[n early] meeting and told her that I was going to be her first volunteer. So we started at her church, Holy Trinity. She would try to get more churches involved, and I would help to get more volunteers.
"So for the first month, it was Kitty, her husband, three program men, and myself, every night, all three shifts."
"I wasn't going to make a fool of myself by not making it happen!" Cancilla laughs. "I felt certain that if others saw us do it, they would see it wasn't such a big deal."
She was right. Soon six churches were on board. For the most part, the same six still are. This year, volunteers from other churches, too small or too far from downtown to host, are using bigger churches' spaces downtown. This allows easy access for guests, and less of a burden on each host church.
Still, if more churches don't become involved, the program's future may be threatened. Because of a lack of volunteers, it had to start two weeks late this year. The program is entirely volunteer-run, and heavily reliant on donations received from parishioners and via CSS.
Anybody may volunteer, though they must go through CSS or the host church for orientation. Church affiliation isn't necessary. But the motivating force behind Our Neighbor's Place is clear.
"The training that I give volunteers is from the Bible," says Schell, "basically telling them what our mindset should be. God said that there will always be poor in the land. And we are to have open hands toward those who are in need. Any one of the people we serve could be Christ, just checking us out."
"We have committed to taking care of these people," summarizes Cancilla. "They may not be doing right, right now. But if they die, they can never turn their lives around." Unsurprisingly, Cancilla traces much regional homelessness to lack of support for mental illness. On December 1 of last year, St. Luke's Inpatient Behavioral Health Unit in Warren closed, leaving even fewer options.
"This is how our country treats mentally ill people," Cancilla concludes. "But they are God's people and we are called to take care of them."
Mary Hoffman and Mary Ellen Lieb facilitate Our Neighbor's Place at St. John the Baptist. "Unfortunately," Lieb explains, "addictions, mental health, and bad circumstances keep many [homeless], and they can't seem to pull themselves out. They are people with stories to share and good to give. I am amazed at their faith and how they thank God daily for their blessings, although they have nothing. By the grace of God, I'm not one of them, but could be if circumstances were different."
"Awareness and familiarity with people who are homeless breaks down barriers and fears, leading to a deep, personal spiritual experience," adds Hoffman. She has become "more and more familiar with the me within. Knowing that God is the very center of me, I feel that I am living my faith by volunteering."
"Volunteering really changes your idea about who the homeless are," says Howard Copen, a Church of the Covenant volunteer. "It's not for a lack of ambition. I am just amazed at the number of working poor."
He recalls one couple who came as guests, both with minimum-wage jobs. But minimum wage — at $7.25 — can't always cover the rent.
In Erie County, "the [hourly] wage needed to afford the rent of an average two bedroom apartment" is $13.10, according to the Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania.
"It's just not what I expected," reflects Copen. "My preconceived notion about what is going on was really, really off.
"But we feel better," he summarizes, "if we can picture everyone as derelicts."
Homeless. Unemployed. Mentally ill. Addicted. Derelict. How do we hide behind these generalizations?
As they settle into their temporary home in this lovely church, built during the Great Depression, I look around at tonight's guests. Some are unemployed, many are underemployed. Some are visibly intoxicated. Many are sober, charming, gracious.
In his book Revolution, comedian and activist Russell Brand reflects on his past of being "addicted to anything that could be cooked, snorted, or swallowed." He continues, "Perhaps I'm an extreme case. But isn't that all addiction really is, 'an extreme case?' Aren't we all, in one way or another, trying to find a solution to the problem of reality?"
How many of us have used alcohol to escape? Gotten away with something illegal? Been medicated for depression or anxiety that inhibited our ability to function?
Surviving the "problem of reality" requires enormous support. Many of us have it. Some don't. Maybe that's really the only difference.
At the prayer circle before supper, Bob Schell invites anyone interested in sharing their stories to talk to me. Rolly volunteers immediately.
Rolly's a veteran who served from 1968-70. At his family home in Corry, he farmed beef cattle, then hay. Now, he points out, farmers are quitting because they can't make enough. "What do people think we're going to eat?"
So he has a stockpile of freeze-dried survival food and a solar generator in his van, where he's lived for a year. His red ballcap reads, "Jesus is my Boss." He's added "& King" in black marker.
I ask about the food. Turns out it's from a Jim Bakker event in Missouri. Bakker, the teary, rape-accused televangelist once incarcerated for fraud and conspiracy, is now capitalizing on End Times, selling survival gear on his website, under "Love Gifts." One choice is the "All Beans Offer - Time of Trouble": seven years' worth of black bean burger pouches for a $3,000 "donation." While he still had the farm, Rolly dropped a bunch of money on Bakker's scheme.
"I was trying to be prepared for what's going to happen," explains Rolly. "But [my family] came in and threw a monkey wrench in that one."
Rolly cared for his mom, who had Alzheimer's, for ten years. But somehow, his sisters ended up with the farm. He's not sure why, but he had to leave. And like so many veterans, he's been unable to access VA support. Fortunately, he found Our Neighbor's Place.
"I could've just looked at the bad stuff, and got really mad," he realizes. "Like this kid last night who didn't want to talk to me. I finally told him, 'See that old man over there talking to himself? You keep drinking and doing what you're doing, you're gonna end up just like him. Is that what you want?'"
Rolly used to use drugs. "I got over it. Quit drinking thirty years ago."
He started back up briefly a year ago, though, when he became homeless. "It was a lot of stress," he recalls. "But now I've got more friends."
Still, Rolly says there's not enough friendliness on Erie's streets. "We need to get people happy somehow. Everybody seems so angry and preoccupied here. People need start communicating" and "helping each other out. It's made me happier, to see somebody smile since I did something for them.
"The only way we're going to make it," he concludes, "is if we help each other. Like they're trying to do here." Akin to many volunteers, Rolly believes he was called by God to take shelter at Our Neighbor's Place, though he is sometimes troubled by tensions arising in these close quarters. "I've walked out of here some nights, like, 'Wow, is it worth it?' But, to see the change in some of [the guests]? Yeah. It's worth it."
Craig Martin is the "Convict Comedian." He's on YouTube. He has two DVDs: Don't Drop the Soap, and Sleep with One Eye Open. He shows me a picture of Reese Witherspoon on his phone. "She emailed me," he says. "She said, 'Keep on rockin' in the free world, Convict Comedian.'"
Martin's been to 32 states. "I've sold cars all over, sold cable TV, furniture, Direct TV, Dish Network — all that good stuff."
"So how'd you get here?" I ask.
He shows me his Illinois driver's license. An old business card from Georgia. He drops names of agents and celebrities who've admired his work.
"I'm gonna get where I need to be," he proclaims.
He tried JR's, "but I was too vulgar. My worst word now is 'freakin'. I took the big F-word out."
He breaks into a sketch about Larry the Cable Guy, then a fat lady at Giant Eagle.
"You see I'm the real deal. I can ad-lib so fast it'd make your head spin. I've got two hours worth of material. I quit for about a year, though." He pretends to cry. "Everyone was laughing at me!"
"Do you ever perform for the folks here?"
"In moderation," he says. "I tell them the good stuff costs money."
Martin has used the shelter for about a month. "I take full advantage of this. I'm trying to be where I need to be." He wants to get to his cousin's in Oklahoma. He could detail cars. Maybe get some shows.
I ask more about his story. "I had a rough childhood," he replies, faking tears again, weaving comedy with confession. "The doctor told my mama, 'we did everything we could, but he pulled through anyway.'"
Martin's been incarcerated, hence the name: Convict Comedian. Robbery and possession of stolen property. But he says his buddy lied on him; that he wasn't at the actual scene. Still, he did time. When he got out, he got into Xanax. He wrote bad checks amounting to $35,000. When he couldn't pay, prison again. But he's been out of trouble for 14 years.
He asks me, "How far do you think I got in school?"
"Probably as far as you wanted to." I guess college. Who knows?
He recites the Gettysburg Address. Fast. Then rattles off parts of the skeleton. Occipital. Phalanges. Femur. Tibia. Lightning speed. "You don't know that?" he challenges. "That's easy stuff."
But Martin quit high school a month into freshman year. "I was bored. Then I got my driver's license. That's all I wanted.
"But I had something they didn't have a name for back then. I was autistic. I didn't know, but that's what helped me memorize
things. But I never turned in my homework. They cleaned my locker out, and found all my papers. The teacher graded them. I'd have gotten As and Bs. But I just wanted to be with my friends who were pot-smoking and drinking. I didn't care about school."
Now he thinks school is worth it. He'd still like to get his GED.
But mostly, "I just want to do the comedy. I want to make it for my 20-year-old daughter. I've never been able to do anything for her. She's got a great stepdad, good guy, hard worker. She couldn't have had a better dad. But I've never gotten to see her. I want to do something nice for her."
When Martin makes it, he also wants to give back to the great volunteers at these shelters. "I'll help those who helped me," he says. "And I'll still ride the bus. If I see a lady with ratty clothes, and some kids complaining about being hungry? I'll just give them money."
He asks when he can get a copy of this article.
"If it helps me get somewhere," he says, "I'll remember you, Katie."
I'll remember you, too, Craig.
Want to help? Contact Community Shelter Services (814) 455-4369 to volunteer, or to involve your church or group at Communityshelter.org. Donations of money, hotel-sized toiletries, and clothing (especially men's) also welcome. Our Neighbor's Place is on Facebook: facebook.com/OurNeighborsPlace