By Caroline Savello
Every Wednesday evening, just as dinner winds down at the Columbus House homeless shelter, Greg Hendrickson ’03 arrives at the shelter’s two-room dining hall with a plastic Shaw’s bag of New Testament Bibles and a group of volunteers ready to discuss everything from God to the weather.
Hendrickson is the director of Night Runners, a Yale Christian Fellowship-affiliated community outreach program that offers spiritual support to New Haven homeless living at Columbus House.
“In some ways what we do sounds very simple, talking with people, building friendships, offering prayer and things like that,” he said. “But I’ve found that a lot of people appreciate having someone to listen to them.”
Hendrickson said Night Runners offers “practical help,” such as warm clothing and referrals when it can, but that the program’s main aim is to address another need homeless people have.
“There are different needs that homeless people in the city have,” he said. “Some are obvious, like food and shelter, or long-term needs like finding an apartment or job, but I’ve found that homeless people sometimes lack friendships and relationships with other people who aren’t either homeless or who aren’t social workers who are paid to work with them.”
Sonja Macy, a former Columbus House resident, said Night Runners gave her a chance to improve her situation, something she said the shelter’s case workers could not do.
“They convince people they have a chance for salvation,” she said. “The purpose is to get them off the street, even if that’s just pointing them in the right direction or giving spiritual guidance or giving them a ride to a housing appointment.”
Macy said Hendrickson and Night Runners introduced her to Trinity Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the program, and indirectly helped her find employment. At Trinity Baptist, she said she found her future employer, the owner of the bed and breakfast on Prospect Street where she now works.
“I basically got out of the shelter with the help of God,” Macy said. “But if it wasn’t for Greg and the Night Runners and the church, I might not have been able to do it.”
Two and a half years after departing Columbus House, Macy said she now returns to the House every Wednesday to lead Bible study and have informal conversations with the shelter’s residents.
“A lot of people recognize my face now,” she said. “I’ve been through a lot of what they’ve been through, so I act sort of as a psychiatrist and just try to point them in the right direction. I just go in and talk to people about anything they really want to talk about.”
Hendrickson said the program began four and a half years ago, when a three week long service project in Boston inspired him and fellow Yale Christian Fellowship members to put their Christian faith into action.
“Faith is really what motivates us in this project,” he said.
The group begins each week’s session with a group prayer before handing out New Testament Bibles to Columbus House residents. Volunteers and the house’s residents chat informally and discuss Christianity and the Bible.
Peter Forrest ’05, a volunteer for the program who is also involved with Yale Students for Christ, said Night Runners offers an alternative to the serious problems many of the House’s residents face.
“Most of the people at the shelter are there because they’re caught in a cycle of addiction: drug addiction, alcoholism, sex addiction, et cetera,” he said. “While I want to affirm the importance of physical healing and rehabilitation, I also believe that there is a spiritual side to breaking free of these self-destructive patterns.”
Komli-Kofi Atsina ’06, whose involvement with Night Runners began one month ago, said the organization’s mission is as simple as giving hope to those whose lives have seemed hopeless.
“They’re just trying to break out of the cycle and live a reputable life, but sometimes it’s difficult to do it on their own strength,” he said. “Our message is that you can rely on Jesus. He’s someone to pray to. He provides salvation.”
Atsina, who is originally from Ghana, said he found he could relate to the Night Runners program.
“I’ve seen poverty all around,” he said. “Once you’ve been locked in that cycle, whether it’s that you don’t have money or you’re addicted to drugs, it’s difficult to get out. But Jesus Christ gives you another chance.”
Night Runners, which operates at the undergraduate level both through Christian student groups and local churches, visits Columbus House Wednesdays from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.