Fifteen minutes away from my dorm room, the lights are about to g unday School Room around the corner, Paul pores over his workbook, highlighter in hand. He is studying to be an EMT, and he highlights almost every line in his effort to commit it to memory. “So far the first five chapters have only been about airways. Airways, airways, airways,”abrahamstent he says to the girl next to him. “Who knew breathing was so difficult?”
Phil couldn’t care less about airways. His concerns are more immediate: vanilla,nnamon, bacon grease, eggs, milk, challah bread, and the one frying pan that he meticulously washes and dries in between uses. He has been trained as a chef and is applying for grants to open a restaurant of his own one day. In the meantime, he keeps his skills strong by making us French toast. “You are all my grandchildren now,” he says. “Which means you’d better find me a job by Christmas, because I’m going to have a lot of presents to buy!” We laugh together, both of our hands dripping with egg yolks as we swirl the bread around to coat it, and I tell him that this is, indeed, the ritual I have with my grampa-by-blood. Maybe full bellies and kitchen conversation carry across family trees.
Cots lined up across the parish house floor
From his cot (cot, in this situation, means one thin, long band of green fabric — think of a stretcher, and add a sleeping man to the top, his bare feet angling out from beneath a fleece blanket that can’t quite cover his long frame), Carlos pays no attention to the bacon’s sizzle. Instead, he is buried in “The Hotel New Hampshire,” a book that gives me a perfect excuse to interrupt his reading and introduce myself. “I’m from New Hampshire!” I offer, to start the conversation. He nods, looks at me, and looks back down at the book, the teardrop tattoos on the side of his face making every gesture look gruffer, and somehow more vulnerable. I keep pressing gently around the edges of the conversation, probing for favorite types of books (fiction) and getting only a handful of words in response until I, on a hunch, ask him if he writes. His sentences tumble out. Fiction. Two book-length manuscripts already, and he would share them with me if only his wife weren’t so mad at him that she wouldn’t send him anything left in the house, not even his boots; he’s spent his winter in tennis shoes. Stories based on his own life, on the people he met on a bus going back and forth to work every morning for years. “No one’s ever looked at them,” he says. “Not Simon & Schuster or anything like that. I think you have to have an ‘in’ or know somebody to be looked at like that.” I walk away a few minutes later and in place of his book, he has a legal pad on his lap, and his pen is moving in quick lines across the pages.
Carlos, Phil, and Paul, whose stories are real but whose names have been changed or switched to protect their privacy, are three of the eleven men with whom I had the honor of spending dinners and an all-nighter over the past week. They are welcoming, funny, and homeless. And while I spend my days giving tours, adding whipped cream to my sundaes in the dining hall, casually complaining about my lack of sleep, and weighing one summer travel option against another, they spend theirs trying not to get kicked out of Starbucks, applying for jobs with their case managers, and, above all, “staying on the right track.”
Their commitment to the right track is what brought us together to begin with. The eleven men (who were originally twelve, but one is currently in the hospital, from what I could gather) were hand-selected to participate in a program called Abraham’s Tent. It is an amazing initiative. AT started one year ago when the head of Columbus House, a large New Haven shelter, talked with the head of a local interfaith group about the overwhelming need for shelter beds during the winter months. Even with the overflow shelter, which fits an extra 125+ men, accommodations are scarce during the months when temperatures are lowest. The two leaders wondered how they could share the burden of housing these men, and Abraham’s Tent was born.
AT takes twelve of the men in Columbus House who are most committed to pulling themselves out of the situation and puts them in a sort of moving shelter. They are sober, cooperative with caseworkers, and hopeful. These twelve men spend every week of the winter with a different congregation — sleeping in churches, temples, and mosques. Columbus House buses the men to and from their destinations every day, while volunteers from the congregations arrange dinners and breakfasts and staff the shelter itself. Even now, after knowing about the program for two years, I am still blown away. Why? It works. It works to free up twelve extra beds in the shelter. It works to give these men the individual friendships, conversation, respect, and relaxation that they could never find in a traditional homeless shelter. It introduces surrounding towns and people who otherwise encounter homeless men as statistics or line items to be crossed off of a town budget to these twelve staggeringly human representatives to contradict their stereotypes. And it helps to get these men on their feet — according to our training session, ten of the twelve men from last year’s Abraham’s Tent are now housed. That is a huge success story.
Home base at the parish house
So this year, YHHAP officially became a part of it. Last year, we sent volunteers out to the surrounding towns to help them with staffing. This time around, we “borrowed” a parish house and ran an entirely student-staffed week of our own. Yale student groups bought the food for dinner and stayed to cook their favorite home recipes. Some enormously dedicated YHHAP Board members spent dozens of hours taking care of all of the logistics. Others, myself included, came to converse at dinner, play card games, and stay up for all or portions of a night to be on-duty as the men slept. At 615pm every night, the men arrived. 1030pm, the lights went out for them. 445am, we made breakfast (with the help of Phil’s French toast). 6am, we handed them packed lunch bags and waved to them as they pulled away in their van.
Tomorrow morning, we will watch them leave for good, on their way to their next destinations. Jim, who has a young son with grades good enough that Jim can’t stop bragging, will continue to study for his GED at night and work full time moving boxes for Schick during the day — he, and several of the other men, repeatedly talk about how much they regret not being able to get more education when they were younger. His dream job is landscaping. He likes how dirt smells and needs to be outside; even in the coldest blizzard of the winter, he left the shelter during the day to get some real air in his lungs. Buzz, on the other hand, would clean toilets all day if it allowed him to be self-employed instead of beholden to a big company. Bob, who plays a mean game of rummy, said over a three-hour game of checkers that his perfect day would be spent choreographing martial art scenes in Hollywood movies. He reads about stage combat techniques every time he goes to the library. And Chris, who says that he is thankful every time he wakes up for being able to get out of bed in the morning, can’t stop talking about the apartments that have been reserved for these men at the end of the program, provided they follow all of the rules. The units will be prepaid for three to six months to give the men a chance to get on their feet, and it’s an opportunity that Chris plans to seize with everything he has.
Tomorrow, these men will wake up together. They are a small group among many, but to dozens of Yale students, they are the faces – our faces – of what is often brushed aside as a chronic, anonymous societal ill. We don’t have the answers to any of this. Heck, we don’t even have long enough blankets to cover the feet of these sleeping men. But in a world where we say thank you for waking up safely every morning, we have beds, and volunteers, and some mighty good French toast — and that’s enough — that’s what we can do — for right now.