Area churches, synagogues host homeless men from New Haven’s Columbus House
Ten homeless men had the chance recently to break away from the crowd of 100 at Columbus House homeless shelter and spend a week sleeping at Orange Congregational Church, where they ate home-cooked meals and had access to games, TV and snacks.
The church was their sixth stop of 14 as part of the program Abraham’s Tent, developed in 2009 when funding and economy problems threatened to leave some people out in the cold.
That emergency situation no longer exists, but the initiative provided such respite for the men, and joy for the volunteers at the participating churches and synagogues, that the program has become a tradition.
“It was in response to a crisis, but as it diminished, the unexpected consequence was the guys had great experiences and such a positive reaction from those helping that we kept it going,” said John Brooks, chief development officer for Columbus House. “It opened their eyes to who was experiencing homelessness. They heard the back stories ... it took the stigma away.
The 10 men — some years there are up to 12 — are handpicked by shelter staff. They sleep on cots at the church and synagogue sites, bring their own blankets, are fed breakfast, dinner and make a lunch in the morning as they head to jobs or elsewhere.
In many cases, other houses of faith pitch in at the home base. For instance, in Orange, Temple Emanuel and Holy Infant Church provided dinner one night each, as did a few teachers and students from Notre Dame of West Haven High School, gathered by Colton Varholak, a church member who is a student there. Varholak has been among volunteers at Columbus House since age 9.
“It brings different faith-based groups together,” Brooks said.
It’s a coordinated effort requiring lots of planning, Brooks said.
The Rev. Suzanne Wagner, minister at the local church, said the week of hosting was a “fabulous” experience. It was the church’s first time hosting Abraham’s Tent, but the church already is active in the Columbus House mission, serving food there, raising money at Easter through a bonnet challenge, a golf tournament and more.
“We’re getting to know them and they’re getting to know us,” she said.
Providing food, shelter were among the main missions of Jesus Christ, Wagner said. “To love God and to love one another as ourselves.”
Brooks said it all started when the former Interfaith Cooperative Ministries put the program together in 2009 after Columbus House asked the faith community to help with the shelter crisis.
Since 2008, chronic veteran homelessness has technically been eliminated and chronic homelessness reduced for the rest of the population.
He said the weeks of the program provide a nice change of atmosphere for the guys and are quieter than the shelter.
Mingling with the people from the houses of faith breaks down stereotypes, he said.
“They’re people — it can happen to anyone. They’re musicians, artists, college-educated people,” Brooks said. “They are people who need a little help.”
Brooks said people often ask what Columbus House needs, and the item they need most is financial support since the budgets in Hartford and Washington, D.C. are “precarious.”
“Our goal is to get people housing, create housing,” Brooks said.
Houses of worship participating this year include: Temple Beth David in Cheshire; St. John’s Church in North Haven; St. George’s Church in Guilford; Mishkan Israel synagogue in Hamden; First Presbyterian in New Haven, partnering with First and Summerfield Church; North Haven United Church of Christ; Unitarian Church of Hamden; St. John Bosco of Branford; Bethesda Lutheran of New Haven, partnering with Spring Glen United Church of Christ ; Grace & St. Peter’s Church in Hamden, partnering with Temple Emanuel in Orange; Church of the Redeemer of New Haven; Beth El Keser Israel of New Haven, Church of the Holy Spirit in West Haven; United Church on the Green, Trinity Episcopal Church in New Haven.