Last winter, Aryssa Damron ’18 pulled an all-nighter — but not to do her homework. Instead, Damron spent the night sitting down with a group of homeless New Haven locals and playing Yahtzee for three hours as part of Abraham’s Tent, an emergency winter housing program run by Columbus House, a homeless shelter in New Haven.
Founded nine years ago to relieve pressure on overflowing shelters, Abraham’s Tent is an initiative organized by a dozen faith communities from the area that provides shelter for 12 homeless men every winter for 12 to 14 weeks. Each congregation hosts the men for one week of the program, providing overnight housing along with meals, a social space and career advising for its guests. The services are run primarily by more than 800 volunteers from the congregations and other local communities.
Among these volunteers are students from the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, who act as overnight chaperones for the program’s guests for one week. This semester, students can sign up for shifts to volunteer at the United Church on the Green, which is located in downtown New Haven, during its hosting week. But coordinators from YHHAP are facing a problem this year — the week that United Church will host the 12 men falls during Yale’s spring break, when many students will be away from New Haven.
“There’s definitely a difficulty in trying to get people to sign up for this right now,” said Vanessa Liu ’20, the Abraham’s Tent project head at YHHAP. “We’ve been advertising it for a month, and currently we don’t have that many volunteers.”
In fact, Liu and Damron, the former Abraham’s Tent project head at YHHAP, are the only students currently signed up to volunteer through YHHAP this year. But according to Damron, it is normal to see a “huge uptick” in volunteer signups the week before the students are slated to help.
Since graduate and professional students are more likely to be in New Haven during the program’s timeframe, Liu is focusing on recruiting those students for the volunteer effort and to grow graduate student involvement in YHHAP overall.
Additionally, YHHAP is trying to both tap into their regular volunteer base for potential participants and encourage students new to service to get involved in short but meaningful ways, Damron said.
“People are doing service; we just have to remind them,” she said. “Because Abe’s Tent is a one-time a year thing, we don’t have that consistent volunteer base — it has nothing to do most of the year. So we really try to use it to get people involved.”
Damron emphasized the impact the program can have both on its guests and its volunteers, and said she valued the “people-to-people interactions” — such as her three-hour Yahtzee game — that can be hard to find on a daily basis in college. Liu said she hopes the program will foster communication between Yale students and the New Haven community.
Past Abraham’s Tent volunteer and current YHHAP Executive Director Jackson Willis ’19 echoed Liu’s thoughts.
“Abe’s Tent [is] a very immediate way to meet people who are neighbors — who are living in the same city but are experiencing very different realities and radically different challenges from classes or homework,” Willis said.
According to Columbus House CEO Alison Cunningham, the 12 men who are chosen for the program must undergo a rigorous background check and an interview. She added that Abraham’s Tent not only provides these men with a safe place to stay but also frees up space in the Columbus House overflow shelter to accommodate 12 or more people during the winter.
Cunningham also expressed gratitude for the students who have helped out in the past, referring to them as “the quiet volunteers” working alongside the rest of the greater New Haven community.
George Lindsay, the Abraham’s Tent coordinator for United Church on the Green, explained that Yale has always been a “big supporter” of United Church on the Green through its other volunteer initiatives and appreciates students’ support. He added that because the church is located in downtown New Haven, the congregation’s volunteers are especially willing to get involved in helping the homeless population in the area.
“It’s a big satisfaction to be able to do this again, and continuously year after year, and we just want to make it a happy time for [the guests] and enjoy their company,” he said. “We learn a lot from them, and they learn a lot from us … It’s about spiritual growth and helping others in all aspects of life.”
According to Bill Kohlhepp, the Abraham’s Tent coordinator for St. John’s Episcopal Church, which hosted the program from Christmas to New Year’s this winter, the most transformative part of the experience was seeing the volunteers form “genuine human relationships” with the guests they served.
He also emphasized the religious importance of the program’s mission.
“In the Christian community, there is a strong call to serve others,” he said. “There is really that sense that they’re our neighbors and they’re currently in circumstances that have led them to a dark place, but we really have a need to answer that call … I think that call to serve others is part of all the faith communities.”
Columbus House was founded in 1982.
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