Taking care of the homeless in Orient

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Mary Ellen Connors of East Marion prepares one of 16 beds in the basement of the Orient Congregational Church on Tuesday afternoon.

Toward the end of last winter, 82 homeless men and women appeared on the doorstep of St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport on a cold Tuesday evening looking for a place to stay.

The church shelter, named John’s Place after its former director, John Bendick, who died last year, could sleep only 51 people. Orient Congregational Church, which had recently agreed to open its doors to overflow guests, was able to take in those who couldn’t find room at John’s Place.

They’ve been doing so during the winter months ever since.

Orient’s pastor, the Rev. Ann Van Cleef, had been a volunteer with the Maureen’s Haven network of homeless shelters at local churches for seven years before John’s Place launched its own independent shelter operation. She knew that John’s Place director Noreen Bischoff, try as she might, could not house all the homeless who were coming there for help.

“I was close to the coordinators and was aware the numbers were getting higher and higher,” said the Rev. Van Cleef. “I’m a firm believer in getting-your-fingernails-dirty ministry. We approached them and said we think this is something we might be able to do. It’s ended up being a great ecumenical partnership.”

The Rev. Van Cleef and her husband, Bob Van Cleef, have been hosting up to 16 homeless men each Tuesday night at the Orient church since January, and plan to do so until the cold weather breaks. The guests have dinner and a shower in the early evening at St. Agnes, then the men take a bus to the Orient church to sleep. The women are housed overnight at St. Agnes, which has enough space to allow them separate sleeping quarters.

Orient Congregational Church is looking for volunteers to stay with the homeless men overnight and to help make breakfast on Wednesday mornings. Donations of breakfast foods are also sought.

“If someone likes getting up at 5 a.m. and getting in here at 6 a.m. for breakfast for the rest of February, we’d love to have them,” said the Rev. Van Cleef. “We could always use donations of eggs, bacon, sausages, frozen waffles, things like that.”

On Wednesday mornings, after helping to clean up after breakfast, the men board a Suffolk County Transit bus at 8:50 a.m. The Rev. Van Cleef makes a point of not asking where they go when they leave, in order to help them preserve their dignity.
The pastor said many of the people who stay at the shelter are farmworkers, and that they stop showing up once vineyards start opening up in the spring and they can pay for some kind of housing again.

“When they come in, I shake their hands. I always walk them to the bus stop and stand there with them,” she said. “Last Wednesday, it was pouring rain, and you’d be surprised how many of us could fit under a couple of golf umbrellas. It was a tender moment, waiting there with them, that reminds us that we’re all God’s children. We’re blessed in different ways.”

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