In the winter it’s hard to imagine not coming home to a warm dinner, a cozy bed to sleep in, and a nutritious breakfast in the morning. But even in our affluent Westchester neighborhoods, that is not the case for everyone. There are homeless people right in our own backyard.
“My first awareness of homeless in our community was knowing that people lived in parked cars in different locations and in semi-abandoned buildings in the community,” says Rev. Dr. Paul Alcorn, longtime Pastor of the Bedford Presbyterian Church and member of the Northern Westchester Interfaith Clergy Association.
Mount Kisco pharmacist Melvin Berger, Chairman of The Mount Kisco Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Council often wondered what happened to the immigrants he saw in the courts. Then in 2004 he had learned that a homeless immigrant had frozen to death in the woods nearby. So through this confluence of events, Berger went to Alcorn with his concerns and the seeds for the Emergency Shelter Partnership (‘ESP’) were sown.
The two joined forces with the Northern Westchester Interfaith Clergy Association and the Town of Mount Kisco and developed a plan to launch an emergency shelter by mid-January. Berger also brought in Carola Bracco, Executive Director of Neighbors Link. “I trusted her opinions and judgments when it came to making ESP happen.” Berger values her and Neighbors Link as a resource, and relies on her knowledge of their guests and their culture.
The partnership’s simple concept consisted of houses of worship opening their doors to offer a safe place to sleep to those in need of shelter. Alcorn says that his congregation had been very involved with the homeless in New York City so ESP was a natural next step for them. On January 24, 2005 the Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford Village opened its doors to provide shelter for four men. Volunteers from the organizing group provided the coverage each night of that first week. The American Red Cross provided the cots and bedding for the shelter. There are now 17 participating congregations in Northern Westchester.
From November through the end of March, between 10 and 30 shelter guests are picked up by a bus at the court house in Mount Kisco. “The program runs like clockwork,” says Noah Sorkin of Chappaqua who has been the coordinator of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester’s participation for the past ten years. Arriving around 9 p.m., they eat a buffet dinner and it is lights out by 10 p.m. A paid staffer and congregational volunteer remain with them overnight. Up around 6 a.m. for coffee and something light, they leave with a breakfast/lunch bag by 6:30 a.m.
Twice a week they shower at the Boys and Girls Club of Northern Westchester in Mount Kisco before they arrive for their evening meal. Each congregation adds their personal touch to the experience for the shelter guests from storytelling to musical experiences. Girl Scout Troops or Little League teams sometimes serve dinner, as this is a great opportunity for community service. “The congregants put a lot of love into this. It’s a credit to our congregation that we have a lot of repeat families. It has brought the best out of our congregation,” says Sorkin.
Berger says that the majority of the shelter guests are from Guatemala. “So many come from Chiquimula that the Mount Kisco Library named their Wednesday afternoon film festival for the homeless after that city.”
There is a lot of prep work that goes into this well-oiled machine. Berger has a good relationship with law enforcement. Prior to each congregation hosting the shelter, Berger reaches out to the fire and police departments in those neighborhoods so that they are aware that the house of worship has overnight guests.
Phyllis Ruppert of Mount Kisco had been on the team providing meals at St. Francis of Assisi Parish for at least five years when a year and a half ago she was asked to join the Board of Directors and now serves as President. “ESP is a group of compassionate people who care deeply about serving people in need and who are willing to mobilize their congregations to support homeless people.”
While ESP does so much for those in need, it is also so valuable to those who support the program. “All of a sudden, over the course of a winter we have hundreds of people volunteer and get to know and interact with some of the people who are struggling to survive. Some of the stereotypes are broken down,” says Alcorn.
One of the biggest challenges for ESP is financial support. Each member congregation makes a financial commitment as well as providing shelter. “We have one grant, a couple of holiday fundraisers and a list of loyal donors,” says Ruppert. They have expanded their fundraising activities this year and held an informational and fundraising event on October 15 to commemorate World Homeless Day. The driving forces of the ESP and volunteers spoke about their different experiences at the event that took place at Saint Francis of Assisi Parish Hall in Mount Kisco.
And there are other challenges. “Severe winter weather causes us to move the hosting location to a congregation location closer to where we pick people up to minimize the need to drive,” says Ruppert who would also like to see that the accommodations are more sensitive to women’s needs, although their shelter guests are primarily and sometimes exclusively male.
The ESP has developed into more than just a traveling homeless shelter. With the educational programs they provide such as ones that teach them how to manage money, they have high hopes for their shelter guests. “My goal is to have all our shelter guests in a position to move up the ladder,” says Berger. He is very proud of what he calls his “success story.” One of their documented shelter guests got a place of his own, went back to school and now has a job as a chef.
“Our program is very successful and has been a model for other communities,” says Berger. The partnership has consulted with other towns to set up sister programs in the County.
“In the future I hope to expand the number of congregations hosting ESP and to mobilize the broader community to provide financial support,” says Ruppert. She would also like to see more unaffiliated people help this faith-based organization. “There is a lot of talent out there. We want to tap more members of the community to get involved. Everyone has some faith in something.”
EMERGENCY SHELTER PARTNERSHIP COMMUNITY PARTNERS
Antioch Baptist Church – Bedford Hills
Bedford Community Church – Bedford Hills
Bedford Presbyterian Church – Bedford Village
Bet Torah Synagogue– Mt. Kisco
First Congregational Church – Chappaqua
Katonah United Methodist Church – Katonah
Katonah Presbyterian Church – Katonah
Lutheran Church of the Resurrection – Mt. Kisco
Pleasantville United Methodist Church – Pleasantville
The Presbyterian Church of Mt. Kisco – Mt. Kisco
St. Francis of Assisi Parish – Mt. Kisco
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church – Katonah
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church – Mt. Kisco
Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester– Chappaqua
Temple Shaaray Tefila – Bedford Corners
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship – Mt. Kisco
United Methodist Church of Mt. Kisco – Mt. Kisco
For more information: www.emergencyshelterpartnership.org