Elis pitch in for Abraham’s Tent

Abraham’s Tent began as a pilot program last year in order to help relieve the overcrowded Columbus House shelter.
Abraham’s Tent began as a pilot program last year in order to help relieve the overcrowded Columbus House shelter. Photo by Joseph Breen.

On Saturday, about six Yalies chatted with two men playing a casual game of rummy over cookies and juice at a small card table. The group was surrounded by foldable beds and screens in the men’s temporary home: the spacious parish hall at the Center Church on the Green on Temple Street.

That night — and for six others — the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project played host as part of Abraham’s Tent, a program that recruits churches and synagogues to feed and house 12 homeless men for a week during the winter. This year marks the first time Yale students have “hosted” the men in the program, which runs from Dec. 6 through April 3, and found them housing at the Center Church.

In preparation for the week, student organizers and YHHAP board members Jeannette Penniman ’12, Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13 and Andrea White ’13 recruited over 90 volunteers from sororities and several campus religious and cultural groups to sponsor lunches for the 12 men, or to work at the parish house.

For the homeless men in the program, the past week was unique: most Abraham’s Tent volunteers are professionals or parishioners, and few are students. Yalie volunteers said the experience has been “eye-opening” for them as well.

“It’s been a give and take,” said Harry VanDusen ’14, a YHHAP board member and a volunteer Saturday night. “It is through interactions like these that we take down the barrier between Yale and New Haven.”

GETTING PAST THE ‘SPEED BUMPS’

Abraham’s Tent began as a pilot program last year to relieve overflow from Columbus House, one of New Haven’s largest shelters said Carlos Jones, a Columbus House staff and the main organizer for this winter’s iteration of Abraham’s Tent. This year, Jones said, he helped select 12 homeless men who have high potential to overcome their circumstances.

Mike Cutler, 43, started going to community college less than two months ago to become an emergency medical technician. On Saturday, he played rummy with friend Mike Stromsky, 42, who just landed a job in packing and assembling for Schick Manufacturing, Inc., in Milford, Conn.

Both men said they encountered a series of what they call “speed bumps” — crack cocaine addiction, alcohol abuse, not having a proper place to live — several years ago, which led them to become homeless.

Others, like master welder Bobby Hannan, 51, are now in the Abraham’s Tent program because the national financial crisis cost them their jobs.

Throughout the 17 weeks of Abraham’s Tent, Columbus House employees help the men search for jobs and permanent housing, and secure medical services for those who need them. In return, the men are held to a strict schedule and must meet a set of curfews each day.

Every afternoon, the men assemble at Columbus House, where they have a chance to shower and drop off any belongings. They arrive at the parish house at around 6:30 p.m. to eat dinner, and then have time to relax and talk with volunteers. The 12 men must go to bed by 10:30 p.m. and awake at 5 a.m. for breakfast. Afterwards, they are given bagged lunches and driven back to Columbus House and are encouraged to spend the day working, studying, or looking for jobs and apartments.

Though the strict schedule works for some, only eight men made curfew Saturday and met at the Columbus House to be taken to the Center Church parish house.

“Very few of us are using the tools that are being given to us,” Stromsky said of the program. “It gives you the tools, but you have to be willing to take the extra steps.”

In order to benefit from Abraham’s Tent, Cutler said, the men must be motivated and actively show that they want to improve their situations. Jones echoed this view, adding that “if there’s no work on their end, there is no outcome.”

By the end of the program, Jones said, all Abraham’s Tent participants should in theory be housed. Last year, he said, 10 of out the 12 men eventually obtained jobs and housing, but only after they worked towards “the next step” following the program.

‘SOME KIND OF NORMALCY’

To help meet its commitment to provide a week’s worth of food and shelter, White said, YHHAP decided to call on other campus organizations, ranging from residential colleges to the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life to contribute volunteer hours and food. Otherwise, Zelinsky said, the project would not have been financially possible for YHHAP. Columbus House only provides transportation, bedding and training to organizations that make a one-week commitment.

All in all, the students’ energy has impressed Jones, and he said he looks forward to future Abraham’s Tent collaborations with YHHAP.

“It’s too much food, it’s too much love,” Carlos said of YHHAP’s week of care. “But sometimes that’s just what these guys need.”

To include more students in the project, White said, student organizers established a steady rotation of volunteers — but the men interviewed said this system did not allow them to get know students very well.

Still, Stromsky said the men’s interactions with the Yalie volunteers this week helped change their perception that college students are too self-involved.

The group of men itself is not close-knit because they only spend evenings together, Hannan said, but their relationships with students have made this past week enjoyable.

While VanDusen said volunteering could sometimes feel “baby-sitterish” given the strictness of the program, VanDusen and the men interviewed said the rules ultimately benefit the participants.

“It’s not only giving you a place to sleep,” Cutler said. “It’s giving you a chance to feel some kind of normalcy.”

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