For Laurel Homeless, Salvation Rotates

January 20, 1994|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,Staff Writer

The first carload of homeless men arrives at the Emmanuel United Methodist Church in Laurel, soaked from a freezing rain.

In the church's cafeteria-auditorium, blankets and portable chalkboards cordon off a 20-bed sleeping area. Nearby are five dining tables and a dozen chairs in front of a television and a videocassette recorder.

This is their home for the week, a makeshift shelter set up under a volunteer-run program called Winter Haven that has helped scores of homeless men since it began three years ago.

On a rotating basis, 12 Laurel-area organizations house a group of homeless men for a week at a time, setting up shelter for them at a church, synagogue or private school each week through March 26.

"We take in those who are clean and dry. . . . I'm talking about drugs and alcohol," says Patricia Dols, coordinator of the program at Emmanuel United, this week's shelter site for the 17-week program.

The program is the brainchild of Jane "Jenny" Smith, a production worker with a Laurel graphics company who was concerned about the men known to sleep under a bridge in downtown Laurel.

"To keep them from freezing to death is the main goal," said Ms. Smith, who modeled the program after similar projects in Hyattsville and Montgomery County.

Winter Haven is "not a high cost sort of operation," said Ms. Smith, "It's all volunteer. I have no special training, no social work degree. A lot of people are finding out that you don't have to have special skills to help."

Homeless men are referred to Winter Haven through the Laurel Advocacy and Referral Service and Elizabeth House, which sponsor assistance programs.

In the winter of 1991, its first year, Winter Haven provided shelter to 63 men. Last year, 68 men used the program, and so far this year, about 30 men have participated. Ages range from 19 to over 60.

The scene at Emmanuel United on Monday night seems typical.

Early in the evening, volunteers from Emmanuel United pick up a group of cold, wet men from the corner of U.S. 1 and Route 198 in downtown Laurel, where they meet each night for a ride to the designated shelter.

They arrive at the church around 7 p.m. and are greeted by Ms. Dols and the other volunteers.

They are followed by yet another carload of men -- and by an See unlikely late arrival: 25-year-old Larry Harris, who enters with his blue mountain bike, its gears and brakes frozen, icicles hanging from the handlebars and spokes.

"Hang up your jackets so they can dry out," Ms. Dols tells the men crowding around the sign-in desk at the entrance to the church. "Let's get everybody together so we can read the rules."

By 7:15 p.m., all but one of the 18 men scheduled to arrive for the second night at Emmanuel United have taken seats around the television or at the dining tables.

Now begins the reading of the Winter Haven House Rules rules, a nightly ritual.

"Guests must remain in the shelter after checking in," recites Ms. Dols. "Guests must be settled in their beds by 11 p.m. with lights out. . . . Absolutely no weapons of any kind are permitted in the shelter at any time."

"OK, it's dinner time," she says in conclusion. "Tonight, it's spaghetti."

At a table, with just a cup of coffee, is Mr. Harris, reflecting on how he ended up depending on a homeless shelter to keep him from freezing.

From 1985 to 1993, he was earning an average of $430 a week as a bicycle messenger in Washington, D.C., while living with his mother.

During that time, he bought a car and an ice cream truck.

But a girlfriend wrecked the car, and the ice cream truck was stolen, he says. Things seemed to go downhill.

In the last 18 months, Mr. Harris has found only short-term warehouse jobs. He lived for three weeks in a tool shed outside of a Hechinger store in Columbia, while working in the store's warehouse.

Now, he's in the Winter Haven program, doing temporary work and trying to save money for another car. "I'm making it and thanking God every step of the way," Mr. Harris said.

At 8:30 p.m., the scene shifts to dessert, as the men are called for ice cream and brownies.

Nineteen-year-old Terry Bosley, who had been sitting at the end of Mr. Harris' table writing a letter, gets a bowl of chocolate ice cream.

"I'm the youngest one here," says Mr. Bosley, a slender man with black pants, black and red sweat shirt, Chicago Bulls cap, headphones and a portable cassette player. "I lost my job and lost my apartment."

A Greenbelt native, he has been unable to return home since 1992, when his mother discovered him with a new Honda Accord he couldn't account for, $500 in cash and thousands of dollars in cocaine under his mattress.

"She said, 'I know you didn't get a loan from the bank,' " he says.

He's trying to put all that behind him, hoping to get his high school diploma and working with his step-brother on plumbing, electrical and dry-wall jobs.

His story is interrupted by a round of laughter from elsewhere in the room: Mr. Harris is showing off his tan turtleneck, laundered by one of the volunteers and now shrunk enough to fit a small child.

"Get a picture of this," he says, laughing.

At 9:30 p.m., the night's entertainment begins: a screening of "The Bodyguard," with Whitney Houston.

At 11:07 p.m., the lights go out and everyone goes to sleep. Four volunteers rotate on 90-minute watches, making sure everything is peaceful. There are no disturbances, just the occasional trip to the restroom.

At 5 a.m., volunteer John Ewald, husband of the church's pastor, makes the first wake-up calls to a couple of men with early morning jobs. Final wake call is at 6 a.m., when Mr. Ewald turns on the lights.

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