Week 35: CMTC Blue Warming Station: Kindness and Empathy for the Homeless
When I signed up to be a Shelter Helper on a Friday night for Christ Temple Church Ministry’s CTCM Blue Warming Station (CTCM) in Newark, I did not know what to expect. Open up to 3 days a week, and only on nights when the temperature falls below 32 degrees, the church and staff of CTCM go out of their way to provide a safe, warm, peaceful environment to its guests.
On nights when they are open to house the homeless, they transform the main room into a shelter filled with as many cots as they can, so they can help as many people as possible.
When you volunteer you can expect to do anything and everything – from helping set up the room, to cooking and serving coffee, dinner and dessert, to helping check in the guests, to security, bathroom cleaning detail and more. You may even have an opportunity to be on transport duty and go with the staff when they pick up the guests from Newark Penn Station (around 8:00 p.m.) and bring them to the Church for the night. In the morning, volunteers help feed the guests breakfast and pack them lunches to take out into the world. The CTCM staff then drops the guests back off at Newark Penn train station.
I was struck by the level of caring and kindness towards the guests by the staff. They truly try to provide a haven of hope and connection in the world of the homeless. During my night at the shelter, I was able to sit for hours with the guests, engaging in long conversations about everything and anything. They loved sharing their stories – their personal histories and experiences. These are resilient, kind, funny, loving people who face immense challenges daily. Challenges you and I can barely imagine.
Have you ever imagined what it would be like to be homeless? To struggle for basic necessities like food and water? To be shunned by society? To not have any security in your life – no family, no home, no income, no safety? No matter how you ended up in the situation, you are still worthy of love and empathy. So this week’s post – instead of recounting the the things I did, I feel it’s important to share the story of one of the guests with you… experience his journey from his point of view…
You’re jolted awake by a police officer who taps your shoulder and says, “Time to move on buddy.” He let you rest on one of the benches at Newark Penn Station for just over an hour but it’s almost 4:00 and the afternoon commute is starting so you can’t sleep on the bench anymore.
It’s Friday and you hope people getting off the trains on their way home will be more charitable than usual. You are hungry. Agonizingly hungry. When you left the soup kitchen this morning they gave you a PB&J sandwich but that’s all you’ve had to eat today. And you are cold. Your winter coat was stolen while you showered at one of the shelters on Tuesday. The sweatshirt and jean jacket they gave you to replace the jacket just are not enough to keep you warm in the cold, damp, rainy afternoon.
The first few waves of commuters file past. Suits, ties, long winter trench coats, bright new sneakers and trendy jackets… most people just look right through you as if you don’t even exist. Like you are an empty candy wrapper on the ground. Some see you and quickly look away, eager to be distracted by iPhones and headphones. Sometimes people look at you with disgust and walk through you by pushing you out of the way. Because you mean nothing. Because they are angry that you exist. You feel dirty. You feel ashamed. You want to run away but you are so very hugry.
You try to read faces and look for someone who seems a little friendly, or at least does not seem hostile. You need to ask for cash for food. You’ve done this many, many times before but it does not make it any easier, any less humiliating.
From experience, you know only to approach men. If you approach women the cops will immediately kick you out. And you avoid groups of young guys. They’re typically in the Station on their way to do something fun and if they notice you they often taunt you and pull at you. One time a group of guys threw their drinks on you. You had nothing to change into and were soaked through and stained for the day. One time, when you were first on the streets, you made the mistake of begging in the station when a RedBulls match was going on. A group of young men pushed you down and one peed on you. The cops intervened and made them leave you alone, telling you to move on, but the damage was done. You cried yourself to sleep that night.
If you approach softly, keep your head lowered and look meek, sometimes you’ll get lucky and the person you approach will take pity on you and give you some coins or a few dollars. Most times people just ignore you. Sometimes people mock you or lecture you, or even yell at you. You tell them, “I’m starving,” and you are. But they think you are using the money for drugs. “I’m starving,” you say as a guy passes by. He hits you with his book and yells at you to get lost.
There are soup kitchens and shelters you can go to for food but they all operate at different times and on different days and they are spread out over the city, so it’s hard to get to them and have consistent food. Many nights the shelters are full. You hate having to beg for food. It’s humiliating. You don’t need people to judge you. You judge yourself enough already. Today, you’re lucky. A few generous commuters and you’ve got $10 – enough for dinner! As soon as you have enough you leave the station and go grab something to eat. Something hot and cheap and with lots of calories, like MacDonald’s.
You are tired. Exhausted. At night you sleep where you can: abandoned buildings, park benches, public restrooms. Sometimes you go to shelters when there is room. Some shelters are worse than the streets because there is little oversight and there is fighting and drug use and theft among the guests. You’ve been on the streets long enough to know which shelters are well-run and which are dangerous. Sometimes you have to go to the dangerous ones because the others are full and it’s just too cold to stay outside. Last night you were at one of these shelters and could not relax enough to really sleep. When you did finally doze off you woke up and your baseball cap had been stolen. That was your only winter hat. You feel defeated.
Every morning is the same – you grab your backpack, which you use as a pillow, and start walking. There’s nowhere to go, so you just keep moving. Everything you own is in that backpack.
You have not spoken with your family for 2 years, with the exception of a text about a month ago when you finally connected with one of your brothers. You asked to speak with your mother, to see how she was doing. He refused, and told you via text, “You’re dead to me. To us.” Those words are saved on your phone and haunt you.
It was not always this way. You grew up in Newark. Your parents brought you here when they immigrated from Italy. You were a baby. You grew up on a block with lots of Italian families and you have fond memories of a happy childhood filled with tag and sports and friends and school and wonderful Christmases. You remember making cookies with your mom and delivering them to the grandmas in the neighborhood. You were an altar boy. You laugh because your mom never did really learn to speak English. You’re fluent in Italian to this day.
After High School you apprenticed with a local jeweler who taught you to mold ring settings using pennies. Pennies minted after 1983 are made from zinc with a copper coating. He taught you how to melt off the copper with a torch, then separate out the zinc so you can pour it into a mold. Then you learned to shape the ring by hand. You earned a job in his shop and married the girl up the street you knew since grade school. The two of you moved into an attic apartment and wanted to start a family. But life had different plans for you.
After several years trying you and your wife heard that there would be no children, it was not meant to be. That caused immense strain in the marriage and led to fighting and anger and depression. Recreational drugs became a more frequent activity for you both. About 18 months later your wife was diagnosed with cancer and died within a year. Your drinking and recreational drug use escalated and became how you got through. How you coped. Then, you lost your job. Not long after came a short stint in jail and the loss of your driver’s license. Bills piled up – medical, court, rent, food, electricity, etc. Your credit cards were maxed out. You’d get a job here or there for short stints – construction helper here, call center operator there. But nothing lasted. The apartment was next to go. You had spiraled out of control.
Your family wanted to help and so you moved in with your mother. She was already starting to show signs of dementia and your brothers said you could live with her to help take care of her. But you could not get free of the drugs and alcohol. Soon, there were family fights. Your brothers did not understand that you’d only taken jewelry from your mom so you could get by. They didn’t understand how hard things were for you. You made mistakes. Too many. Then one day your brothers gave you $5,000 in cash and kicked you out. They told you never to come back. So you packed one change of clothes in a backpack and left.
That money was gone within a month. So was your family, who’d given you up…. who’d disowned you and changed their phone numbers. That was a little over two years ago. Two years and a lifetime.
A few months ago you found a dish washing job a few days a week at a local restaurant. Sometimes they forget to pay you but you can’t do anything about it. Sometimes they give you the leftover scraps to eat. You saved up and bought a phone. One where you can put money on as you go. You wanted to talk with your family. You missed your mom more than you realized was possible and was afraid she had died since you last spoke with her. There was an ache in your heart every time you thought of her. You tracked down your brother’s number through his employer, but he would not let you speak to your mother. He hung up on you after an angry exchange and then texted those fateful words: “You’re dead to me. To us.” Those words haunt you and fill you with despair. You grieve for your family.
Tonight is Friday night and it’s cold, so cold. A new emergency shelter – the CTCM Blue Warming Station – opened up in December. You’d tried it one night by chance and found it was different from many of the others. The staff care. They treat you with respect, cater to whatever needs they can. They do not have showers and the cots are so close together you can feel the guy next to you’s breath when he snores, but they feed you homemade comfort food – as much as you want, including coffee and dessert… and they clean the bathroom after each person uses it – restock clean towels, fresh toothpaste and toothbrushes, new bars of soap. It makes you feel human. Like someone out there cares for you.
CTCM only has 25 beds and you know they pick up the guests at 8:00 at Penn Station, so you hurry back there to wait for them. You’re there by 6:00 because you know you need to line up and be one of the first 25 or they won’t have room. It’s started sleeting and you’re cold and wet but you’ll wait the two hours because you really need to get into that shelter tonight. You need that connection. To feel loved.
Tonight at CTCM you see many of the same people. Fellow homeless you’ve come to know. You are friendly but not really friends. When it comes to ensuring you have basic needs like food and water it’s every man for himself. The food tonight is delicious and the CTCM staff has handed out pairs and pairs of clean socks! You can finally toss your filthy, wet pair you’ve been wearing for a week. It’s been snowy and rainy and your sneakers have been damp the whole time so it feels amazing to have new socks! You wash up and even though you can’t shower you feel good. You last showered Tuesday and will shower again tomorrow (Saturday). You know the schedules of the shelters with showers and you make sure you shower at least twice a week.
The staff at CTCM said they’d help find you new clothes. You’ve been wearing the same jeans and top for two weeks straight – even sleeping in them – and they’ve noticed and want to help. You are so grateful you cry. You’ll be able to sleep here tonight and actually sleep peacefully because you know the staff is on patrol, keeping everyone safe. Tomorrow night you’ll be working at the restaurant and hopefully they’ll remember to pay you and give you some scraps of food.
Next week will be the same. And the week after that. Focused on surviving each day it’s hard to think about getting healthy and rebuilding. With so much to overcome, there is not much thought or hope of digging out. How can you get help to get off drugs? Who can you turn to? How can you find a job with no recent experience, no clothing, no license to drive, unable to shower regularly? How can you feel connected with no family or friends? What gives you hope? Where is the way out? What will happen to you in 5 years? 10 years? Where will you be? It’s so overwhelming you can’t think about it and besides, you’re exhausted and feeling ill from being out in the cold all day. So you force these thoughts out of your mind and collapse on your cot to get some sleep.
What I learned from my night at the CTCM Blue Warming Station is that we can help the human spirit become resilient. We can help those who are lost find connection to the world. I’m hoping to have more opportunities to volunteer here and with the homeless, and I’m certain to be conscious of and kind to the homeless when I see them. These people need love and compassion. No matter how they ended up on the streets, they deserve kindness.
You can learn more about Christ Temple Church Ministry and the CTCM Warming Station through their Facebook page at:
The CTCM Warming Station program just started in December 2017 and they have done an amazing job at getting it off the ground. Donations and volunteers are needed. In addition to their Facebook page you can check out volunteer activities through Jersey Cares at: https://www.jerseycares.org/organization/001A000001HlOBpIAN