“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.”
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
The first thing you need to know is that at first glance no one looks homeless.
Some may look like they’ve lived a harder life than others. Some might have mental health or addiction issues that can manifest itself in a variety of ways, and you probably wouldn’t mistake anyone for a hedge fund manager, but generally speaking, they look like your everyday, working-class human being.
We all have an idea of what a homeless person looks like. Visions of people sleeping on the street, a steam vent, a doorway, or even a park bench. In fact, our collective image of a homeless person is of a person sleeping. This leads many people to believe that homeless people are essentially lazy, and that is the cause of their homelessness. Nothing could be further from the truth and the reality is that it takes an extraordinary amount of energy and resourcefulness to survive on the street. Often the reason you see people sleeping in the day is because they were up all night to avoid freezing to death or being assaulted. The sheer amount of effort it takes to even attempt to try to take advantage of the few benefits afforded you by the government is staggering. It’s hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you don’t have any boots.
As a journalist, they say I’m supposed to keep my distance. That I’m not supposed to get involved or become emotionally influenced by what I witness. I am not the story, they will tell you. But I can’t help but be personally involved. This is my community and for better or worse, these are my people.
I’m at the Branches Episcopal Outreach Center in Rio Grande, New Jersey for the third time in two weeks and I look like pretty much everyone else here. If you walked in off the street and didn’t know anyone else, I’m not sure how much I would stand out to you, but I suspect everyone in the room knows I’m not one of them. Maybe not.
I am starting to recognize regulars, and even beginning to remember some names. I don’t talk to many people. I’m an introvert by nature so I’m not the sort of person to just start random conversations with people. I have heard a few stories. So I sit, drink too much coffee, watch and listen.
People come and go. Volunteers. Clients. People dropping off donations. Others picking up excess to take to other food pantries and warming stations. It’s always busy. The volunteers seem to be constantly moving. They never sit.
No one is supposed to smoke in front of the building, but they do. There is a thrift store next door and the staff don’t want visitors to have to walk through a cloud of smoke. But many come and go through the door. Some aren’t even smoking but they walk outside to chat with others.
I’m amazed by the number of people with cell phones, but even more amazed that they don’t seem to use the facility to charge their phones. Maybe they do and I just don’t see it. You don’t think about someone being homeless and having a cell phone. You also don’t think of someone having a job and being homeless, but both are realities.
I spoke to one gentleman who lives in the woods. This is the phrase I hear over and over again for those not living in their cars. They live in the woods. There are even those who will tell you that they’re not really homeless, they just live outside. Not everyone is entirely bothered by this and they’re not looking for your pity. But they have needs like everyone else and even if they’re employed, it’s difficult to maintain a semblance of normality with no permanent residence.
The man who I spoke to lives in a tent. He also has a hammock that he’s rigged in a tree with a tarp. He explained that even though he’s working, he’s trying to save money to get a house for he and his partner.
Not everyone here at Branches is homeless. Some come to get warm, to shower, or to get warm clothes. Others come for the free meal. Some even leave a small donation. There are even people who come simply for the community. It’s a place to come and talk with other people. To fellowship.
There is always soup and grilled cheese. Bagels and eggs in the morning. There is usually fresh fruit, juice and milk. But everything else is dependent on what has been donated that day or week. The first time I was there, lunch was sausage and peppers on what looked like amazing fresh rolls. Today was baked chicken pieces with potatoes and carrots. And coffee. Always coffee.
The community here knows each other and appears to look out for each other. Most are ready to lend a hand whenever needed and sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between volunteers and clients. If someone needs help bringing in donations, half a dozen men and women get up to help.
This day someone came by with donations of food. Several people walked out the door to help including a woman who had to be in her late sixties. She took her purse with her and came back carrying a milk crate full of food, still carrying her purse in the crook of her arm. I held the door and felt like a schmuck.
Here we are a day later and it’s supposed to go from 40° to 12° overnight. This is a temperature where it’s critical for people on the edge. Some of them are elderly or not in good health in the first place. They don’t have small children and are therefore not eligible for motel vouchers. If it weren’t for the generosity of strangers, many of these people would die tonight. Some might still.
Two different men I met are being housed in local motels, paid for not by the State, but by donations made to the Branches Emergency Fund. One is eighty and the other is in his 60’s and has health issues. They were both told not to come out until Tuesday.
It’s hard to know what to do about the situation. There are chronic homeless who will never come in and have no hope of leading what most of us would consider a normal existence. The problems are many, from mental illness to substance abuse. There are others who are simply one unexpected bill away from a situation that will put them into a tailspin.
One young man was jailed because of unpaid misdemeanor fines. He refused to take a plea deal for a felony charge he said he was innocent of. While incarcerated another inmate assaulted him and he fought back, leaving the other inmate bloody and he was subsequently charged with a new felony that they could prove. This is how things go.
Many of the men in our county jail are otherwise homeless. They get released and end up at Branches, until an unpaid jaywalking ticket results in their being put back in jail. There is no treatment. Just an endless cycle of poverty, incarceration and desperation.
On Friday, two of our county Freeholders, Gerald Thornton and Jeffery Pierson visited Branches and spent time with the staff and some of the clients. Sandra Lockhart, the director of The Branches said the visit was very positive and that the freeholders appeared shocked at what they saw. Mr. Thornton had not gotten back to The Standard by press time.
Some in the community are hopeful that we are finally moving in a positive direction that will not only end the harassment by police, but that it will result in positive change for our homeless community. To date, the local government has been unwilling to do more than the state mandated minimum. It is estimated that as many as 150 people are homeless in just Middle and Lower townships, yet we have no shelter in all of Cape May County. The closest is Atlantic County which is already over capacity. We need our local representatives to act with compassion and kindness and work to put an end to the suffering of people on the fringes.
In the meantime, volunteers continue to take care of a community of men, women and children that the rest of society has forgotten. They are largely invisible. They live in the woods where you don’t see them, but they are there.
I urge you to stop by The Branches, which is open six days a week from 8:30am to 1:30pm every day but Sunday. They are open extended hours during Code Blue (which the County is responsible for calling when it gets below 25° or 32° with precipitation). Go sit with the people and talk to them. If you have the means, donate money. They rely on donations of clothing and food, but what they really need more than anything is money.
Donations can be made to:
The Branches | 1304 Rt. 47, Unit A-H, Rio Grande, NJ 08242.
Sandra Lockhart, Director
Terri Mascione, Administrator