A Place at the Table: Conversation, Support and Community
On a typical night, you can find ten women gathered around a family- style dinner table, enjoying a light meal. Some are conversing with the volunteers; others are quietly eating their dinner. But all are sitting together. They are guests at the B’nai Jeshurun/Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew (BJ/SPSA) Homeless Shelter, our response to the needs of those without a safe haven.
Homelessness is on the rise in New York City. Since 2002, the number of individuals in city shelters has risen 75 percent, many of whom come from lower-middle class or middle class backgrounds. Finding shelter and resources to end the cycle of homelessness is imperative.
For more than 20 years, BJ and the SPSA have opened our doors to provide an intimate and welcoming shelter experience. As a part of the Emergency Shelter Network (ESN), which consists of close to 50 faith communities that supplement and offer an alternative to the city shelter system, we originally served men and women. For the last decade, however, we have provided hospitality to homeless women in need of temporary shelter. We are proud to be one of the strongest shelters in the network, and make it a priority to be open five days a week, year-round, no matter the circumstances or holidays.
Our supportive communities make sure the shelter continues to be a place where women can come to sleep comfortably. It all starts with an organization called Urban Pathways, one of several organizations contracted by the city to refer guests to shelters in the ESN. At Urban Pathways’ Olivieri Drop-In Center for Homeless Adults, located near Penn Station, those in need are assigned a case manager and screened before joining our shelter community to ensure a safe environment for all—guests and volunteers alike. From Oliveri guests arrive at our shelter by bus each night, and return to Oliveri via the same route in the morning.
Our shelter provides a warm environment for our guests to eat a family-style meal, talk with the volunteers if they’d like, or just relax. Our guests often stay with us up to a year or more, depending on their circumstances. Most of them are waiting to find more permanent housing solutions while working full-time (sometimes multiple jobs), going to school, and/or working with case managers at Olivieri to get back on their feet.
Our guests naturally build community because the group usually stays together for a long period of time at our shelter, with new women coming every couple of months or so as guests find housing or are able to move on. Likewise, we try to provide our services as a reciprocal community that helps each other.
Guests tell us that they feel truly valued by our volunteers and comfortable in a way that is hard to find at a large city shelter— no small feat to accomplish day after day, week after week.
We can only hope that there won’t be a need for shelters like ours down the road. In the meantime, we are proud to host our guests at BJ and SPSA, and will continue to provide dignified shelter for those who are working toward more permanent solutions.
It takes the entire community’s participation to maintain the BJ/SPSA Homeless Shelter, and we are always looking for new volunteers to join the effort. For more information on how to get involved, contact Larissa Wohl.
A Conversation at the Shelter
The guests and our volunteers build up quite a community among themselves, as four of our shelter guests—JM, LV, DG and EG—discussed in a conversation recorded by co-chair Jim Melchiorre one evening this past summer.
JM: I have been in New York City since February 2012. I’m from a smaller community in Maine, around Portland. I really didn’t know New York City very well, and when I lost my apartment, I didn’t know what to do. That’s one thing that’s really great about this shelter. So many volunteers come from such a wide variety of professions and backgrounds. It’s been hard because I don’t have a college degree, but I’ve gotten a lot of help on writing resumes and other valuable advice from volunteers.
LV: I’ve been here about a year. There is a mistaken stereotype of people who are homeless. And the experience is not always the same. Being homeless in June and July is a lot different from being homeless in January, when you are focused 24 hours a day on keeping warm.
DG: I am from Barbados. We say “the Land of the Flying Fish.” I have been in the shelter since January. The little things are important. A cup of strong coffee in the morning will always make a volunteer popular among the ladies.
EG: I’ve been here since October. When I was hit by a car and fractured my arm last winter, one of the shelter volunteers who is a nurse- practitioner helped me read and understand the X-rays. The volunteers also help build our confidence when we are going through a little rough spot.
JM: Friday and Saturday nights are very hard. On Fridays, we can sometimes get into a shelter way uptown in Inwood or out in Queens. On Saturday, there are only four beds there. If we don’t get sent there, it’s to another drop-in center to sleep in a chair.
LV: Between that drop-in center and the subway, I’ll take the subway.
EG: Or go to a movie. You can switch from theater to theater, five or six different movies. You wear a hat sometimes, sunglasses sometimes, so that you look different in each theater. I did that sometimes when I still had my unemployment. Now the movies are too expensive.
EG: We like it when we sit with the volunteers and we share our lives. Like when you told us about going to Zambia.
LV: Or when we found out Liz and Jonathan are engaged.
EG: Or when the pastor tells us about all the places he’s traveled to do weddings.
DG: When we had a flood after a storm, we all grabbed some cardboard to keep the water from the beds.
JM: Edmond is a favorite volunteer. He is very formal. He makes us feel like we’re eating at an expensive restaurant.
LV: Or the volunteer who buys us ice cream. JM: And the one who fixes coffee that looks like Frappuccino.
Each spring, in the weeks before Passover, I always ask folks at SPSA to consider a “one- time only” volunteer shift at the shelter to help out our partners at BJ, and those who offer inevitably contact me later wanting to volunteer again. And it’s usually because of dinner conversations like this one, the human connection to our guests, and the sense of community. Can you join us?