Brian K. has 10 days sober. The 39-year-old carpenter knows the chaos inside an Atlantic City homeless shelter. He knows the isolation of living in a tent in the woods on the Howell-Lakewood border. He knows that he can’t get much sleep in the Lakewood tent city, where some 70 chickens hop from branch to branch to roost on the trees and set one another squawking in the middle of the night. And he knows that the support the Freehold Clergy Association’s winter Emergency Housing Program provides is an opportunity to take his sobriety one day at a time, one night at a time, and move forward.
“It’s been a couple years since I actually felt human,” Brian K. said. “I actually sleep at night now. I’m so grateful. This is definitely a place you can get your life back together.”
Each winter for the past eight years, the clergy association has housed up to 15 homeless men a night in churches across Western Monmouth County, said Holmdel resident Stanley Rosenthal, who helped found the program with Joan Mandel, Ramona Pappas and John DiSpada, all of Freehold. The Emergency Housing Program runs from Dec. 1 through March 31.
The homeless men gather at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Freehold in the evening for an intake process. Volunteers test the men for alcohol use and search their belongings to ensure they are not in possession of weapons, drugs or alcohol. First time guests fill out intake forms, indicating any medical conditions and agreeing to the rules of the program.
Some new arrivals have been referred to the program by the Monmouth County Department of Human Services, some heard of it from word of mouth, Rosenthal said. In recent years, volunteers have noticed changes in the homeless population looking for emergency housing. Some professional men and women facing economic hardship are finding themselves homeless for the first time.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of people who are not normally in the system,” Mandel said. “We’ve seen a population shift. There is a big variety in the people who come to us for help.”
During the intake process, volunteers assess the men’s needs. If the men are eligible for social service programs, volunteers help guide them through applications and give them advice on interviews. If they need new clothes, donations of clothing are made available to them.
“We try to make it so that they’re better off when they leave than when they came in,” Mandel said.
Eddie C., a 45-year-old chef who has taken part in the Emergency Housing Program this season, said volunteers referred him to a day behavioral health services program in Neptune and helped him apply for food stamps and public housing.
“They’re helping me in every way they can,” Eddie C. said. “I never thought I would find people who would do this for me.”
Churches Extend Helping Hand
Member churches in the Freehold Clergy Association assist in the program by arranging for volunteers and donations. Several offer use of their facilities for overnight housing. Following intake, the men are transported to the church or temple set to feed and house them for the night. Participating houses of worship include in Freehold, in Freehold, in , in Freehold, Catholic Church in Howell, and in Manalapan, Rosenthal said. (The clergy association does not reveal the specific days a church offers housing to ensure the men participate in the intake process rather than arrive unannounced at the house of worship.)
At the church the men are housed at for the night, they eat a hot meal and are provided with air mattresses and linens. Many of the men have spent the day walking and fall in bed exhausted after dinner, Mandel said. Others watch movies or talk with the overnight volunteers or each other.
The quiet respite in the houses of worship comes with other advantages. Brian K. attends meetings of 12-step programs that are sometimes held in a church on the night the homeless men happen to be housed there. During one such meeting, Brian K. introduced himself to the group as a guest of the Emergency Housing Program and shared his struggles with alcoholism and homelessness. A member of the group took Brian K. aside after the meeting and offered him a job. He is working with Freehold Clergy Association volunteers to get his paperwork in order so he can start in his new position.
“It’s all through the grace of this program,” Brian K. said.
And the grace of the program amounts to more than the goods and housing he’s been provided, he said. He’s been made to feel valued.
“They say people need food, clothing and shelter, but you need more than that to feel human. You need respect,” Brian K. said.
Volunteers, Homeless Benefit
Hundreds of volunteers make the highly coordinated effort possible, Mandel noted.
“We really rely on our volunteers. That’s our whole program. Without all the volunteers, it wouldn’t happen,” she said.
In each step of the process a volunteer has contributed: the donations of socks and snacks for the men; the monetary donations to cover the $5 cost of housing one man for one night; the intake assessment; the food preparation; the overnight stay; and the transportation to and from the houses of worship—all are dependent on a person offering time and resources.
The volunteers benefit from the act of giving. When St. Robert’s provided housing one evening in mid-January, the church’s youth group prepared a meal of several baked pasta dishes, fried chicken, pulled pork, and dessert and dined with the men. Aliceya Jerome, a 13-year-old Freehold resident, said she initially decided to attend to complete the hours of volunteer service required for confirmation. Once she met the homeless men, however, she found herself deeply impacted by the experience.
“I had a good feeling being able to cook and know that someone who doesn’t have as much as I do would enjoy it,” she said. “It changes my thoughts about how appreciative I should be for what I have.”
The homeless men also find ways to support one another. During his first night in the program—his first night experiencing homelessness, Robert R. was distraught. Originally from Hazlet, he was unfamiliar with Freehold and unsure of where he would go the next day or how he would find his way back to St. Peter’s for intake the next night. Brian K. checked on him throughout the evening, providing directions and landmarks to find his way back to St. Peter’s, giving Robert R. his extra lighter, and inviting him to follow Brian K. to the the next day.
“We’re all in the same boat together. We can all relate to each other. This is your family. You know what it’s like to feel that way—to be in despair,” Brian K. said.
How You Can Help
The Freehold Clergy Association accepts monetary donations for its Emergency Housing Program. To sponsor the housing of homeless man, consider donating $5 for one night, $35 for a week, $150 for a month, or any other amount. Send your tax deductible donation with your name, address and phone number to Hope Lutheran Church, 211 Elton Adelphia Road, Freehold, NJ 07728. Checks should be made out to Hope Lutheran Church. You can also contact Stanley Rosenthal at 908-902-0769 or Joan Mandel at 848-459-6215 to arrange to make a donation.
The housing program is also in need of socks, men's t-shirts, work boots, crackers and other snacks, nonperishable food items, and juice boxes. They also accept new and gently used winter jackets.
Volunteers are needed to help with the nightly intake process, which takes place from 5:45 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at St. Peter’s, or to help with the overnight. Contact Rosenthal or Mandel for more information.