Night in a shelter for homeless - Atlanta man explains how he came to be his brother's keeper

John Bray is far from being famous. But among some of this city's homeless he is well known. A few years ago he considered homeless people just ''bums,'' he said here recently. Today he gives up some time almost every week to help make sure at least some of them have a warm, safe place to sleep during the winter. He has made friends with some of them, invited a few home for dinner, and offered work to several.

His 15-year-old daughter, Annette, sometimes joins her father as one of the overnight volunteers at a shelter for homeless here.

Two national experts on the problem of homelessness say more Americans like the Brays, a middle-class family, are needed to offer their help because the number of homeless is increasing.

The economic recovery is helping those prepared to jump back into jobs, but is apparently doing little so far for people at the bottom, according to a variety of experts and those helping the very poor.

For the homeless, now estimated to number between 2 and 3 million people, most cities still do not offer much in the way of overnight winter shelters. And even in cities that do, such as Atlanta, getting enough overnight volunteers during the winter months is no easy task.

One recent evening at the homeless shelter in the Central Presbyterian Church here, Mr. Bray, a self-employed general contractor and former auto worker, sat in the volunteer's room just off the gymnasium where some 95 men were settling in for the night on plastic mats on the floor. Two homeless women were staying on another floor.

The gym was heated, since no blankets are provided. When the shelter opened a few years ago, no mats were provided, either. Tonight, as usual, some of the men are already asleep by 8:30. But lights stay on until 9:30 and many of the men are still talking, some occasionally laughing. But most of them are sitting or lying quietly. In the morning they will have to leave at dawn, though some get up and leave as early as 5 a.m. to be first in line at day labor pools.

''I volunteered one night (three years ago) and I've been coming back ever since,'' Mr. Bray says with a laugh, as he relaxes in a chair in the small room next to the gym where the volunteers grab a few hours of sleep in rotation. Usually there are four or five volunteers a night and at least two are awake and on duty at all times. They make sure no one disturbs the men as they sleep. The men are almost always cooperative and quiet. If there is a problem, they help the volunteers. Usually the biggest difficulty is loud talking, though occasionally someone has to be asked to leave.

Bray sports a black-and-white-striped railroad engineer's cap, a green and yellow plaid shirt, blue jeans, and boots. His beard is short and graying.

Asked why he started helping the poor several years ago, he responds: ''I realized that what the Scriptures were saying is true. If we're called to be our brother's keeper, then we've got to make ourselves available and do some of what Christ did on earth. He took care of the hungry, the sick, and the poor.''

He admits that before he realized this, ''I didn't want anything to do with them (the homeless). I guess with age I've mellowed and gotten a little wiser,'' he adds.

His layoff from a Ford plant in 1979 after four years' employment helped him get a better view of how it might be not to have a home. ''I saw a lot of people losing their jobs and ending up with no means of support,'' he remembers. ''When the call went out to help with the homeless, I could kind of relate to where some of those homeless were coming from.''

But he says he was not really prepared to relate to them until he began volunteering at this shelter in 1980.

Once he started meeting some homeless people he ''felt a compassion for them, '' he says. ''There are people here, some of whom come from all sorts of walks of life and are here for all sorts of different reasons.''

According to one national study by Mitch Snyder of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, most of the homeless are not alcoholics. In fact, he says, alcoholics are the smallest group among them. Much larger proportions are made up of employable males, former mental patients, and the elderly. Increasingly, mothers with children are showing up, he said recently.

Bray says his involvement with the poor began gradually, through his church, with donations of food for the needy at Thanksgiving and repairing toys for poor children. His wife, Judy, helped with the repairs and later supported his desire to volunteer at the shelters for the homeless.

Last year he finally succeeded, with others, in getting a shelter opened in his own town of Jonesboro, near Atlanta.

When asked what he thought of recent remarks by White House counselor Edwin Meese to the effect that some people not in need take advantage of free soup lines, Bray, who has also worked in some soup lines, said: ''If he (Meese) would get out of his office and get out in the street and in the soup lines, then he would be able to see those who were taking advantage of the system and those who were needy. I realize there are some of both. But the system (of free food and shelter) was set up in the first place because the need is there.''

One night Bray invited Phil, a homeless man, to his own home for dinner.

Even with all his experience at the shelter, Bray was not sure what to do - or how his family would react.

Phil's clothes were ''not the neatest in the world,'' he recalls. ''And he hadn't had a bath in probably a couple or three days. But he's a supernice individual.''

But there was no problem. His family and another family also there for dinner welcomed him and made him feel at home. After dinner, young Annette Bray says Phil laid down on the living room rug to watch TV and the two young boys from the other family and Bray's 11-year-old son, Tony, settled in next to him to watch. Soon they were all asleep. ''It was neat,'' she recalls, as she takes a break in the volunteers' room at the shelter here.

In the same room, an insurance broker (one of three other volunteers on duty that night with a lawyer and the Brays) is blowing up a green plastic sleeping mat for himself and getting ready for a little sleep. In the gym, most of the men are quiet now and the main lights have been turned out for the night.

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