Tireless patron for the homeless donates time and compassion

ELISE CHISOLM

November 22, 1990|By ELISE CHISOLM

Doris Stepanovich spends her nights with the homeless. She is a chaperon for a sleep-over that shouldn't have to happen in a resourceful country.

She is part of a network of volunteers who chaperon the homeless in shelters in the Baltimore area and across the country. While the National Coalition for the Homeless estimates the homeless at about 3 million yearly, the picture worsens.

Stepanovich currently works at St. Bart's, a shelter in the parish house of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on Edmondson Avenue. The shelter for men is run in cooperation with the Episcopal Social Ministries. It will open around Dec. 1 -- it was open last winter, but it has been undergoing remodeling along with the parish hall.

Each night there will be eight cots for the homeless and in an adjacent room two cots for the chaperons.

The day I talked with Stepanovich she was sitting at her desk as the late afternoon soon sifted through a lead-glass window picking up the brightness of her red hair and red earrings both of which belie her quiet brown suit and straight forward shoes.

Stepanovich is surrounded by the eclecticism of her job: office equipment, files, a telephone console that rings every five minutes. The walls are covered with bulletins, a cross, a psalm for busy people and a poster of an orangutan leaning back scratching his head. The caption reads: "Just when I know all of life's answers, they changed all the questions."

Perhaps that describes life in general. It certainly parallels what led this woman to expansive volunteer work and her full-time job as church secretary.

"Since my husband died seven years ago, I have made a point of keeping busy. I was so devastated . . . we were so close. Then I decided to take a course in bereavement at St. Agnes Hospital. That put me back together. Back in Texas, growing up, my mother and father always helped people in need, and I grew up thinking all people did that."

Stepanovich lost her first husband during WWII, so she is no stranger to loss.

But this is not your average "church lady." She is feisty when necessary and is adept at handling desperate calls or just arranging church meetings and appointments.

"When I was a little girl, a nun at the school said, 'Doris you are part angel and part devil.'"

She thinks this ambiguity helps her with all her jobs.

The home economics major from the University of Texas is especially suited to deal with people with problems, so many of which are domestic. She was a homemaker and is the mother of one grown son. She spends her spare time with the homeless and at hospices and hospitals assisting the grief-stricken. She also sings in the choir.

A native of Austin, Texas, she has a wonderful soft drawl. She still says "thang" for "thing," and "y'all" for "you all."

The Rev. James E. Cantler, recently retired rector of St. Bartholomew's who worked with Stepanovich for many years says, "Doris is compassionate and a marvelous listener. I don't know what I would have done without her. She saved me many hours because some of the people who would call for help . . . well, after they talked to Doris they wouldn't need me."

So what's it like to spend the night with the homeless?

"It's a revelation. First I have to tell you these men have been screened first. There's no alcohol on them, no drugs and they aren't in treatment of any kind.

"I find the men not only grateful but well behaved. These are people who don't want to sleep as much as they want to talk.

"I have heard everything, and that's what we are there for. They are only allowed to spend 14 nights here, then we get another contingent. We open at 7 p.m., and we are all out of here by 8 a.m. sometimes those of us who chaperon bring fried chicken, or some homemade snacks, but the shelter does not supply food.

"I had a young man who wanted to discuss opera all night, he was very well-educated. I had a man who told me his life story of drug addiction and how his recovery came about. I pray for these men daily, but we don't pray with them. We are open to all races and creeds."

Stepanovich says the men want to talk about the families they once had. Some of them have started attending the church and have felt a new spiritual awareness. She feels she may have changed a few lives.

During my visit with Stepanovich, Joel Cochrell, chairman of St. Bartholomew's Outreach Committee, stopped by to see how the remodeling of the shelter was coming along. His committee overseas the Adopt-a-Family project, emergency services for families who have received eviction notices, and St. Bartholomew's food pantry.

"I find that Doris, being a woman, can relate to the men's problems, she is the mother they don't have anymore. Many churches are doing what we are doing, but we need more churches to join with us," Cochrell says.

Baltimore city's homeless number about 2,400 nightly. There are only 43 shelters in the city.

This year, I didn't have to look far for a column for Thanksgiving. It was practically in my own back yard. And I give thanks for all the women and men who are devoting time to the plight of the homeless.

Elise Chisolm's column appears every Tuesday and Thursday in The Evening Sun.

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