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Making Space for the Homeless

February 16, 2012 By:
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Beth David congregant Melissa Anderson (at center) plays Candyland with her daughter Ella and homeless guest Camren Burns. Photo by Greg Bezanis

On a chilly Sunday evening, the main entrance to Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne is dark, the parking lot almost empty.

Inside, however, running feet and shrieks of laughter pierce the quiet. A dozen children swarm in and out of a multipurpose room as their parents set dessert on an L-shaped table.

"Who wants to read a book?" congregant Bonnie Offit calls out to no one in particular, a baby dangling from her arms.

If not for the synagogue setting, you might guess this was a festive family gathering. But three of these families are homeless single mothers and their children.

Beth David is serving as their temporary shelter for the week before they move on to another religious institution connected with the nonprofit Interfaith Hospitality Network-Main Line.

The collaborative religious housing concept dates back to 1986, when the first such network formed in Union City, N.J. Now, more than 170 networks operate in 41 states and Washington, D.C. Though independent entities, the networks all follow similar models of coordinating with local houses of worship, congregational volunteers and existing social service agencies to help the homeless become independent at a third of the cost of traditional shelters, according to a national website.

In recent years, the networks collectively served about 50,000 children and adults with the help of more than 140,000 volunteers in 5,000 congregations. Eighty percent of those families went on to long-term housing.

Most of the host congregations tend to be churches, but at least five Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues have been involved in the Philadelphia area, including Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, Or Hadash in Fort Washington, and Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.

Some, like Germantown Jewish Centre in Mount Airy and Beth David, have been involved for close to 20 years.

A few congregants resisted at first, coordinators at both of those synagogues said, but that's dissipated over the years as they saw how the structure of the network helped people become stable. Those selected to receive the free assistance generally have a deadline of three months to find a job and housing with the help of their caseworkers. During that time, network staff provide rides to school, daycare or work. Unemployed adults head to day centers for life skills classes and counseling.

"We're not a soup kitchen where we put them up; it's a program where we teach them to survive on their own," explained Jill Cooper, executive director of Beth David. "These people really want to pull themselves up by their bootstraps."

Even with additional congregations joining in over the years, there are always more homeless people on their waiting lists, said Susan White-Herchek, director of the Main Line network.

She said they've focused on where they've seen the greatest need in recent years -- single mothers and their young children. Most of them are African-American or Hispanic and identify as Christian, she said.

Mercedes, a 21-year old who asked that her last name not be used, said she was referred to the network after her mom kicked her and her 10-month-old son out of her Conshohoken home.

"It's weird staying at a church," Mercedes acknowledged, refering to the series of churches she'd roomed in so far, "but I don't have any other place so I'm thankful I have somewhere."

She's taken it as an opportunity to ask plenty of questions about the religious denominations they've encountered. She went to a friend's Bar Mitzvah once, she told one of the volunteers, lighting up at the memory of the party. "Do you speak Hebrew?" she asked.

For Christiana Burns, also 21, Sunday marked the first time she'd ever set foot in a synagogue.

"I never even heard of it, so I didn't know what it was," confessed Burns. She'd never met any Jews before, either. "They look normal to me," she said, shrugging.

Burns said there's not much diversity in the small town in southeastern Kansas where she's from, nor are there any homeless shelters.

"If you need help, you go to a family member."

That worked, she said, until her dad got verbally abusive, leaving her and her three small children -- 18-month-old twins, Alejandra and Alesia, and 2-year-old son, Camren -- to fend for themselves. Burns headed to her mother in Philadelphia, but she didn't have room for them either.

They've met so many network volunteers for just a day or two that it's hard to form relationships, Burns said, but "they're all super, super nice and they do everything they can to help us out when they don't have to."

More importantly, she said, network staff have been motivating her to do simple things she thought were impossible with three kids in tow -- like taking public transportation to get her identification or apply for welfare.

"I've never been on my own with all my kids."

While she talks, Camren chases after a new friend -- 4-year-old Ella Anderson, who came with her brother, two older sisters and parents to host the dinner along with another family from the congregation.

"This doesn't seem like a homeless shelter at all," said 13-year-old Hannah Anderson, splayed on the couch after leading a game of Clue with two of the older children.

Beth David became so invested in the program that administrators decided to add a shower when they remodeled last year so the homeless guests wouldn't have to wait to wash up until they got to a day center, said congregant Nancy Benowitz, a nurse from Plymouth Meeting who helps coordinate the volunteers. Cabinets in a kitchen next to the multipurpose room have been labeled for "IHN" and Benowitz has collected a stockpile of toys, sorted into age-appropriate bins.

She and fellow coordinator Ed Weiss recently began reaching out to other nearby synagogues to see if they'd be interested in sending volunteers. They usually have plenty, Weiss said, but finding adults who are willing or able to stay overnight can be challenging.

Weiss said he first got involved 18 years ago because it seemed "to be the easiest way to help somebody significantly."

The program "does what families do best, which is dinner and sleepovers," joked Weiss, 64, a University of Pennsylvania researcher from Penn Valley.

Susan Anderer and her husband have been cooking a dinner for the guests, usually on Sunday nights, since their three daughters -- now 10, 13 and 16 -- were in car seats.

"It's a really easy thing to do as a family," said Anderer, a psychologist from Wynnewood and vice president of the synagogue.

Aside from helping others, it gives their kids perspective, Anderer said. "There's a lot you could take for granted living where we do."

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