The Respite Shelter
One Week in July: Kolot Chayeinu Members Staff Shelter for Homeless Men
by Barbara Kancelbaum
From July 18 through 22, eleven Kolot Chayeinu members joined in supporting the first Respite Shelter for homeless men held by Old First Congregational Church this summer. Our members cooked and served dinners, set up a large room for sleeping, stayed overnight, and in some cases did all of the above. The shelter was a collaboration of Old First and the Brooklyn-based social services agency CAMBA, in which eight local congregations participated. Kolot’s involvement grew from an effort over the past several years to find ways to engage our members, and especially families with children, in direct community service. Although children do not sleep in CAMBA’s homeless shelters, they do help prepare and serve meals. Kolot members have also volunteered in a similar shelter for women held during the colder months at Brooklyn Heights Synagogue. These small shelters (housing 6 to 20 people per night) are an alternative to large, chaotic facilities and complement the services that participants receive from CAMBA during the day.
Our members who participated are: Ellen Weber, Pam Potischman, Amanda Aaron, Gregory Cohen, Sherri Levine, Stacey Simon, Brad Lander, Meg Barnette, Mark Burns, Diane Holzinger, and me. Overall, the experience was positive and deeply affecting for our members, despite rather extreme heat in the church. The men who used the shelter were very appreciative of the meals—which our members went out of their way to make creative and healthy—and of the space. Volunteers—who slept in a private room—report varying levels of comfort during the night!
The respite program aims not only to provide food and shelter but camaraderie between guests and volunteers. The latter was probably the greatest challenge: All of us sought to engage participants but sometimes found it hard to connect. While some of the guests wanted to talk with us, many kept to themselves. As Diane Holzinger put it: “I felt good volunteering…. I did sit down with the guests to eat, offered them more food, but was unable to engage them.” The reality is that guests may be embarrassed about their situation or have difficulty communicating, and our talks with them were awkward at times. I was touched by a story that one of the participants told me: He had been a truck driver, and apparently his troubles started with a ticket for a broken headlight, which he couldn’t pay, leading to the loss of his license and his job. He tried hard to assure me that he was looking for a job and did not belong in a homeless shelter. Needless to say, working in the shelter casts in sharp relief the basic unfairness and mismatched priorities in our society: we have buildings and people who need jobs, yet the task of caring for the homeless falls on religious groups and volunteers.
Gregory Cohen says, “I was very happy to have the chance to participate, and the men were clearly grateful for the effort and home-cooked food. The support from the Old First coordinator made the logistics very easy, as did having Mark Berns as my partner.” Gregory hopes that Kolot will continue to partner with groups providing volunteers to CAMBA homeless shelters and emphasizes that those new to this sort of volunteering will find it well-organized and easy to join.
Ellen Weber was assisted in serving dinner and setting up the site by her 15-year-old daughter, Allie Shields-Weber, and Pam Potischman. Ellen reports that the Old First staff member on site was fantastic at getting her daughter involved. Pam says, “I had a very good experience. My responsibilities were minimal, but it was really nice to eat with the men, and seemed to be appreciated by most of them. The rep from Old First did a good job orienting us to what we could expect from the participants. I think it would be great if we could help expand what CAMBA offers. It is a very concrete way to work with other congregations and also engages us in working with people who are struggling, and in a greater discussion about the issues surrounding homelessness.”
Amanda Aaron volunteered on the hottest day of the year. She had recruited two non-Kolot friends who, with their three 9-year-olds made the meal, served it, and cleaned up. “It was so wonderful to have the 9-year-olds helping out,” Amanda says. They were very respectful and helpful and they enjoyed doing it together. It’s the only time my daughter has voluntarily helped clean up after dinner!” She adds that, despite having had a very busy week at work, “I’m so glad I did it. Bringing the meal was very rewarding and being there put my own crazy life into perspective. My friend made some bakery-worthy pies and we took care to make the meal special. It was clearly appreciated by the men in the shelter.”
Will Kolot commit to staffing a shelter again? Finding members to volunteer in July was challenging, and looking toward the future, we would need more muscle to play a coordinating role. Yet, individual members are encouraged to join in efforts already under way, such as that of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, and in addition, cooking meals for CAMBA shelters is a good option for our teens seeking to do community services.
Thank You from the Pastor of the Old First Reformed Church, Nov. 8, 2011:
Old First Reformed Church and CAMBA thank the volunteers of Kolot Chayeinu for your assistance at the Respite Shelter this past July and August – the only Park Slope shelter serving the homeless at this time. You and 9 other Congregations worked together to provide 500 nourishing meals and 50 nights of safe shelter for the men. Thank you for cooking meals, spending the night, sharing conversations, providing hospitality, and giving of your time. Thanks!
Nicholas J. Klagge
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