An interfaith act of charity

Service: Members of Beth El Congregation offer breakfast to homeless women at a Catholic-run shelter.

December 20, 2004|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN STAFF

Breakfast was conventional -- made-to-order scrambled eggs, roasted potatoes and orange juice. The service, however, was not.

For the third consecutive year, members of Beth El Congregation of Park Heights Avenue provided a Christmas week meal yesterday morning for about two dozen displaced women at a My Sister's Place drop-in center run by Catholic Charities.

But the prospect of serving the city's homeless to celebrate a Christian holiday didn't seem to faze the members of the Jewish congregation.

"I don't think that God discriminates," said Cathy Shapiro of Stevenson, who has been serving breakfast here with her sister, Lorna Diaz, for several years. "I just wish we could be here every day."

Robert Slatkin, the chairman of the synagogue's social action committee, who lugged a portable cooking range to the shelter yesterday, said the annual breakfast for Catholic Charities started almost five years ago when the committee reached out to offer its help to local charities. Soon, the ecumenical partnership was born.

"We have so many people who want to volunteer that we're always looking for opportunities to help," he said. "Our members feel very fortunate to have everything that we have."

About 50 women a day spend time in My Sister's Place, a storefront room on West Mulberry Street that opened in 1982. Last year, My Sister's Place served 1,048 women and 406 children, said Tracy Pindell, the center's director.

"Domestic violence is the No. 1 reason why the shelter is women-only," Pindell said. "We want a place where our clients can feel safe and start to put their lives back together."

The shelter offers a haven from the streets, according to the women, many of whom use it every day. At night, many try to stay with friends or family. When those options are exhausted, they end up staying in shelters or the parks.

During the day, only a few places like My Sister's Place offer refuge when the shelters ask them to clear out.

Yesterday, many women bore the marks of homelessness, carrying suitcases packed with their most valuable belongings. One woman wore a gold watch, but it had been fastened to her wrist with tape to deter those who might consider stealing it from her while she sleeps.

Women such as Diana Purnell, 51, face a variety of daily challenges. With her 12 children staying with family members on a South Pacific island, she said she'd like to join them.

But yesterday morning, Purnell said she must "deal with some issues first," which she declined to describe.

Although armed with a degree from Morgan State University and trained as an accountant, she has been unemployed for several years and homeless since November last year.

"At the library, if you doze off, they ask you to leave. In the park, you need to move on eventually. At Lexington Market, you can stay for a little while if you buy something," she said, sipping a hot chocolate. "Here you can doze off or even take a shower. It makes a difference."

Some expressed frustration with the center's limited hours -- from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. -- and with some of its programs and workshops. Although homelessness, some of the women resented that others tried to tell them how to better their lives.

"I don't need the exercise class here," Doris Hazelwood, 49, said. "I need a place to live."

Others worried about health conditions that compounded the instability in their lives.

"I'm HIV-positive, and I'm full-blown," said Barbara Cavanaugh, 40. "I feel like I'm at the last stage here. I don't know where to go."

Then, remembering the host who handed her a candy cane, she quickly added: "But the breakfast was good."

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