Pitching in to help homeless. Volunteers comfort New York's dispossessed

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There are some 11,000 volunteers helping the homeless in New York City, according to the Partnership for the Homeless, a coalition of churches, synagogues, and private community organizations that offer aid to the city's growing homeless population. And more often than not, these volunteers say they get more than they give as they serve food in soup kitchens, hand out clothes at drop-in centers, or talk to homeless individuals late at night in a shelter.

Mary and Marty Larsen bring their three-year-old daughter, a homecooked meal for 14, and a guitar to a Wall Street-area homeless shelter once a month, where they spend the night as volunteers.

``It's a nice time together,'' says Mrs. Larsen, a homemaker in Brooklyn's Bensonhurst neighborhood. ``My daughter loves them, and that breaks the barrier. It brings [the homeless] back a little. And I don't want to hide the real world from my daughter.''

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Francine Riccio recalls that she opened her ``big mouth'' several winters ago at her church on Staten Island, and spoke in favor of opening the church up to homeless women. Then she figured she had to back up her words by volunteering to spend nights in the shelter.

``At first, I was kind of scared,'' says Ms. Riccio, who is now a staff member of Project Hospitality, a nonprofit interfaith ministry on Staten Island. ``Now when one guy makes it off the streets, it really does it for me.''

Arthur Williams, a West Indian immigrant who was orphaned as a child, donates one night a month at a shelter because he is concerned about the ``hurting people'' he sees on the streets of New York. He says he identifies with their plight.

``Many of them have very good lives, but because of family problems or job losses, they are in distress,'' says Mr. Williams who works in a Wall Street brokerage firm and lives in Corona, Queens. ``How much ought we to do as persons? We can offer comfort, consolation, and support, beyond just lip service. Doing the ethically responsible thing, that's what concerns me.''

During the holiday season, and as winter approaches, calls for help for the homeless accelerate. This week is part of ``help the homeless'' week in New York City, a fund-raising and volunteer recruitment time sponsored by the Partnership.

And while monetary donations, as well as clothing, food, and furniture, are crucial in helping the homeless, volunteering - spending time in the trenches - can teach a person a lot more about the problems of homeless people.

``One of the great things about volunteering in a shelter is that you gain firsthand the knowledge that these people are not simply those homeless you see on the streets,'' says Pat Burton-Eadie, who works with volunteers at Trinity Church in Manhattan. She refers to the great diversity of the homeless. ``And we raise [the volunteers'] consciousness. They often get angry that these people have to be in a shelter.''

She says she has seen people become politically active after volunteering, and she says sometimes special friendships between a homeless person and a volunteer can help get that person off the street.

``The true value comes forth in listening on a person-to-person basis,'' says Peter Smith, president of the Partnership. ``In large shelters these individuals have to protect their turf once they get inside, and they are often not called by name, but by number.

``A volunteer can help give back their identity. The shackles of homelessness drop off for that period when a volunteer just sits and talks.''

And volunteers admit they never look at a homeless person the same way again.

``You can't help but be changed,'' says Terry Troia, director of Project Hospitality, which had an open house for the community this past weekend. She reports that there is still a lot of stereotyping of the homeless - Staten Island residents recently jeered at the homeless during a town meeting concerning a city proposal to build a city shelter in that borough.

She says her project doesn't need food or money as much as it needs volunteers right now - to help cook meals, work at the drop-in center, or spend a night in shelters.

Ms. Burton-Eadie would like to find volunteers to spend Sundays at her shelter, allowing the homeless to sleep-in or do their laundry, without having to get up early to be bused to drop-in centers.

``There is something you can do that has an impact,'' says Mr. Smith. ``After a night in the shelter, you are very tired, but you feel good.''

Many of the volunteers are moved by religious conviction. Mrs. Larsen says she and her husband, who works for the telephone company, are very active in their Brooklyn church and were looking for ``a kind of ministry.'' Since their church is too new and small to have its own shelter or soup kitchen, they were led to help at Trinity Church, she says.

Ms. Troia would like to see Project Hospitality be a ``prophetic voice'' in the community

She points out that seven homeless people have died on Staten Island this year, including a young man who was remembered at the open house. He died when the pickup truck he was sleeping in was set on fire.

``Maybe these people wouldn't have died if we had had a place for them,'' she says, adding that her shelters cannot take alcoholics, drug addicts, or people with severe mental problems.

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