John and Tammie Wilkinson lead busy lives as parents, professionals and parishioners of St. Mary Parish in Branford. But once a year, they carve out time in their schedules to coordinate a week-long emergency housing program called Abraham’s Tent at their parish.Abraham’s Tent: Feeding the hungry and housing the homeless.
They are joined by an amazing cadre of 250 other parish volunteers who provide hospitality in a variety of ways to 12 homeless men selected by Columbus House, the shelter and housing organization in New Haven. The 12 are housed for a week at a time through the winter months at different New Haven-area faith communities.
“We get an awful lot out of it,” said Tammie, who by day is a software analyst. “It’s the joy of seeing the joy on our guests’ faces ... that they have a few hours of comfort, a few hours of not being afraid on the streets, of honoring their human dignity and of letting them know that they’re in a safe place with people who care.”
Added John, who works in medical supply sales, “They’re very untrusting people; so we try to give them a sense of knowing that there’s good people out there who are willing to help and who care about them.”
For the men who come as guests, the feelings are reciprocated.
“It’s beautiful,” said Jorge, about his experience being housed in different faith communities.
Patrick, another guest, spoke along the same lines. “It’s terrific. We get to go to different churches and meet different people. And they cook us dinner plus breakfast — which, I was told, is the most important meal of the day.”
During the week, the parish provides an area for beds and bedding (loaned from Columbus House), dinner, breakfast the next morning and a bagged lunch for the men to take back to Columbus House, where they shower and get ready for their day. The men, in turn, use their day to work or apply for jobs and housing, meet with case managers and/or enroll in employment and career-skills programs.
St. Mary’s has hosted Abraham’s Tent since it began seven years ago during the busy overflow season. Last winter, St. Mary’s was one of 16 faith congregations, including St. George in Guilford, St. Stephen in Hamden and St. Theresa in Branford, that volunteered to take turns hosting for a week between Christmas and April.
The program is named for the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, who, in Genesis, ran out of his tent to greet and offer hospitality to three strangers.
At St. Mary’s, hospitality has entered a new level of creativity. This year, there was a Mexican night hosted by the Ladies Guild, a meal hosted by the Legion of Mary, an ice cream social with the youth group, a potluck night hosted by a family and a fish fry by the Knights of Columbus.
There also was a movie night with popcorn, movie candy and the film “Sully”; a spa night offering pedicures, back and neck massages and haircuts; and gifts of toiletry bags, a $10 Dunkin Donuts gift card and gift certificates to wash clothes at local laundries.
“I love it; they’re a great bunch of guys,” said Cathy Stevens, parishioner and vice president of nursing at MidState Medical Center in Meriden. “We’re all just one family, and being with them makes me think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ These are good people who just have been hit with some hard moments.”
In fact, St. Mary parishioners have been so moved by the Abraham’s Tent experience and the general issue of homelessness that they created an outreach committee that pushed the number of parish groups to a whopping 50 ministries.
In addition to participating in Abraham’s Tent, parishioners now cook and serve a monthly meal at Columbus House, participate in a “Midnight Sandwich Run” program that drops off sandwiches and warm clothing to homeless people in New Haven and partner with Amistad Catholic Worker House. Even more, they have spun off a separate nonprofit organization that runs a transitional housing facility called Farrell House in the center of Branford.
“It’s the people,” said Joan Pirtel, who previously coordinated Abraham’s Tent with Alice Hines. “It just grabs you ... the need to help other people and reach out.”
Alison Cunningham, chief executive officer at Columbus House, said that her organization serves 2,500 people a year in three shelters.
“Connecticut is the envy of many states because they see how well-coordinated our services are,” she said, explaining that the state spends about $73 million a year for shelter and housing for the homeless. “We’ve done a good thing by ending homelessness for veterans and chronic homelessness” with long-term housing, she said.
The next focus will be on homeless young people, Cunningham said, “because there are a lot of kids who are discharged by families, run away or are abandoned and spend their days ‘couch surfing’ between families and friends.” Homeless seniors who have run out of money, resources and family support are another concern.
According to Cunningham, the leading cause of homelessness is economic — people who make the minimum wage have a hard time with the cost of living. She estimated that about 35 percent of homeless people live with a mental illness, while 65 percent have had or still have an addiction.
“But what we do to provide supportive services reduces costs in other areas [such as emergency expenses, arrests and imprisonment] by up to 75 percent,” she noted.
Abraham’s Tent evolved in 2009 when Columbus House lost funding for an overflow shelter, “so we reached out to clergy and came up with the idea,” she said.
“When you have to say, ‘I don’t have any room for them tonight,’ then those 12 beds are important. It expands our capacity in a very meaningful way. The men feel really cared for, and it works for those who don’t want to be in a big shelter” with 50 people and noise.
“We look for the right fit,” she added, such as ruling out those with a violent or criminal background. Organizers also tried to shelter women under the program one year, but it didn’t work as well as it did with single adult men.
“The generosity of the faith communities is overwhelming and the care they provide is a beautiful thing,” Cunningham said. “It helps the guys with their self-esteem and hope for what they want to accomplish.”
“The real passion” for the work she does, she says, “comes from the people we serve. They are wonderful people. They are the folks who have been pushed to the side by our society. They are outcasts. We’ve done a disservice by labeling them homeless. They are our brothers and sisters, and they certainly deserve a place to live.”
Father Matthew Gworek, parochial vicar at St. Mary’s, said of his parish, “It’s great for us to have this outreach for our parish to be involved with Columbus House and the issue of homelessness. Probably the most powerful outcome is just the opportunity to get together and see how similar we all are ... how much we have in common. It makes us more inclined to help each other.”
Jim Hayes, who was in charge of the overnight duties, chimed in. “I plan to keep doing this; it’s just wonderful. They don’t ask for anything, yet they’re grateful for everything.”