Week 4: Hungry Helpers in Jersey City
St. Lucy’s Shelter is located a few short blocks north of the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, in a traffic-congested, gritty area of Jersey City. The beautiful architecture of the former church turned shelter is dwarfed by textile mills, warehouses and big box stores which surround it. I’m here to help serve dinner to the current residents/clients….
St. Lucy’s is a supervised 24-hour, 7 days/week, year-round emergency shelter for single men and women. They can house up to 60 men and 20 women on any given night. For this particular evening’s dinner, approximately 50 men and 5 women are here to enjoy the wonderful meal which Alba, one of the main chefs, has prepared: salmon with rice and vegetables. My job is to welcome each guest and hand them an additional lunch bag of food to supplement the dinner: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a drink (soda or bottled juice) and a sweet snack. I’m there with two other volunteers that night – one of whom pours cups of orange flavored juice from a large cooler for the clients and the other prepares small plates of cookies, donated from Carlo’s bakery, for the clients to enjoy.
It’s here where I meet Raijya (name changed for anonymity), an older Egyptian woman, who’s been staying at the shelter a few weeks. Residents can stay up to 45 days, a little longer if they’ve found work and are saving for an apartment. The shelter offers a wide array of services aimed at getting people back on their feet, such as access to mental health services, job training, connections to welfare, SSI and unemployment. The residents can also be referred to mental health and addiction treatment programs as needed. When clients first arrive they meet with staff to assess their current condition. Once their needs are determined, they’re given access to a room, shower, clothing and two meals a day served at the shelter.
Raijya has a wonderful smile, bright eyes and only speaks Arabic. She knows about 5 English words and a handful of Spanish. I’m drawn to her because I’m curious to know her background. Someone must have brought her to America. She speaks no English so how did she get here? How has she come to this shelter? She’s sitting with two other women who don’t speak Arabic but it’s obvious the trio spends time together because they’re communicating through a series of random single words and hand gestures as they laugh and share their food with each other. Raijya signals for more juice so I bring her some and introduce myself. She begins to teach me a few words in Arabic. “Marhabaan” for hello. “Shukraan. Gracias,” she says. “Taakul,” she says while pretending to eat. While I’m speaking with this trio, a younger woman enters for her dinner. She’s just off work. She works full time at a big box store but does not make enough at minimum wage to afford housing and food. This is not uncommon at St. Lucy’s.
There are just under 9,000 homeless people in New Jersey (according to the count coordinated by Monarch Housing). St. Lucy’s shelter opened in 1986 and has become an indispensable resource to the homeless in Jersey City. Many of the clients have been homeless on and off for a long time. Then there are those who are newly homeless due to job loss or psychiatric issues or substance abuse (or some combination of all three). St. Lucy’s also regularly serves the working homeless and people who have been released from prison. Perpetually short-staffed due to a very tight budget and unceasing government cut-backs, St. Lucy’s looks for volunteers to help them daily.
After the meal the guests move from the cafeteria into the shelter housing. They must be inside by 7:30 p.m. They have to leave the facility by 7:30 a.m. the next day, taking all their belongings with them. The shelter does not store anyone’s personal items so anything they leave behind will be thrown out.
I wonder about Raijya as I help her clean up her area. Where does she go in the morning? How does she fill her days? Is she a grandmother? When did she come to America? What happened to the people who brought her here? All these questions must go unanswered because I can’t speak Arabic.
“Wadaeaan,” she says to me as she nods her head. “That’s means good bye,” one of her friends tells me. She tells me it’s one of the words Raijya taught her.
“Wadaeaan,” I reply with a wave.
St. Lucy’s is run by the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark. I connected with them through JerseyCares.org, a nonprofit organization that provides a wide range of volunteer opportunities throughout New Jersey. St. Lucy receives the majority of their volunteers through Jersey Cares.
To learn more about St. Lucy’s Emergency Shelter or to make a donation visit: http://www.ccannj.com/st_Lucy.php
To learn more about Jersey Cares or to look for your own volunteer opportunities visit: https://www.jerseycares.org/