FROM the NY TIMES:
March 28, 2010
Upper West Side Church Offers Homeless a Home, and More
By ANN FARMER
Crystal Chatwood and Eugene Thomas had hitchhiked from Georgia to Florida in search of work, and finding none, had taken a ride north to New York with another couple. The couple dropped them off in Central Park, promising to return in a few hours.
That was last summer.
Mr. Thomas, who said he had left his last $87 with the vanished couple, and Ms. Chatwood slept on a park bench that night. Rousted by the police, they moved to Riverside Park and then took refuge on the steps of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, a United Methodist congregation on West 86th Street at West End Avenue.
They returned every night for the next few months. “We used cardboard and blankets,” said Ms. Chatwood, 39. As the days became shorter and grayer and the nights colder, she finally decided “it was time to get my life together,” and she went into the church to ask for help.
It turned out that she and Mr. Thomas, 50, could have done that much sooner, because the church has long considered improving the physical, material and spiritual well-being of homeless people a crucial part of its mission, and some of the 200 or so congregants started out sleeping on the steps.
The church has operated a pantry for more than 30 years and a women’s shelter — where Ms. Chatwood found refuge — for more than 20 years, and it offers counseling and other programs.
The senior pastor, the Rev. K Karpen, had noticed Mr. Thomas and Ms. Chatwood outside for some time.
“With fall coming on, we were interested in finding them some other place to live,” Mr. Karpen said. “We convinced them to talk to social workers.” On any given night, from 2 to 10 people sleep outside the church, and though Mr. Karpen said that “no one should live on the steps of the church,” he said he always hoped that anyone who needed assistance would eventually seek it.
“We try to get to know the people and encourage them to help us find them other options,” he added. “We try to be a bridge to the next thing in their lives.”
After Ms. Chatwood moved to the women’s shelter, Mr. Thomas continued to sleep outside the church, and he began doing odd jobs around the building.
One Sunday she asked the congregation to help them pay for a marriage license.
Someone gave them the money — it costs $35 — and Mr. Karpen performed the ceremony in the chapel on the first floor. Others chipped in for flowers and a cake decorated with yellow roses. The receptionist wrote a song.
“It was awesome,” Ms. Chatwood said. “If not for the church, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Their best man was Joseph Branch, 61, a church member who in his 40s had found himself on the streets after losing his wife and his job. He, too, had ended up on the steps of St. Paul and St. Andrew.
When he asked a woman for spare change, he said, she asked him to help set up a bazaar in the church’s basement. He became a volunteer in the food pantry, which now helps about 250 families a day, and an usher on Sundays.
Eventually he was hired as the church’s security guard.
“I like to say, I came to church and never left,” said Mr. Branch, who successfully sought to have Mr. Thomas hired as a custodian after he saw him picking up trash each morning.
“I used to sleep out in front of the church. I got a break. So I tried to do it for him,” Mr. Branch said. Ms. Chatwood and Mr. Thomas now live in a family shelter, and they are saving money to rent an apartment.
Chris Gill, 49, a veteran who has used a wheelchair after losing most of his toes to gangrene, arrives at 5 a.m. most days to manage the pantry.
“I know what struggling is about,” said Mr. Gill, who was homeless himself and tries to nudge those who still are to seek something better. “I listen to them and let them rant. I can see the anger. I say, ‘You need more, try this place.’ ”
Five social workers are on hand at the church every day, meals are delivered by volunteers while other volunteers tutor children, and retired accountants help prepare tax forms.
Volunteers aside, the services cost money. “We get funds from here, there and everywhere,” said Mr. Karpen, who first came to the church in 1984 as a student at Union Theological Seminary.
That includes government aid and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as donations from congregants.
But he said, “The food pantry was started when the church was broke and few in number.”
Mr. Karpen often digs into his own pockets to help. “Every month he buy me a MetroCard,” said a 39-year-old immigrant from Ghana, who because of her immigration status gave only a first name, Elizabeth.
Tucked away in a tiny room, she patched a quilt with a sewing machine that had been lent to help her start a seamstress business.
The room smelled of the roast chicken that a church member had dropped off for her and her 4-year-old son. As she told how she and her son had been left homeless after a fire in their Bronx apartment, Elizabeth began to cry and said, “My situation is too much.”
She now lives in a temporary shelter, but her immigration status disqualified her from permanent housing.
“He helped me a lot,” she said of Mr. Karpen.
When a brother of hers in Ghana recently died, the church put together a memorial service.
“Here,” she said, a smile lifting the corners of her mouth, “it feel like home.”