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For Kwasi, Gregory, and nine other homeless men, last week's brutal winter weather and heavy snows were no concern, thanks to the shelter of Abraham's Tent at St. Mary's Church.
For the fourth consecutive year, parish volunteers have thrown open Branford church's doors, kitchen, and hearts of the congregation to create Abraham's Tent, an eight-day shelter service. The program provides a welcoming space, comforting meals, and safe, secure overnight lodgings for New Haven-area men in need.
Organized by Columbus House of New Haven, Abraham's Tent shelters the same group of men during a period of approximately three winter months, with the weeks strung together by a rotation of faith organizations offering facilities and services. The men are given daily transportation between New Haven and the shelter. St. Mary's offered its services from Feb. 10 to 17.
Church members chip in to provide delicious hot meals and to stay to share board games, a game of cards, songs (such as those offered by the St. Mary's Singers), or just talk with their guests nightly, before the men turn in on cots set up in a separate space in the building.
Last week's meal plan included a dinner of pot roast stew and mountains of mashed potatoes, whipped up by members of Branford High School's Class Act, a fine/practical arts cooking class led by teacher James Bannon. While a snowstorm closed school and canceled plans for the student chefs to arrive in uniform and serve the men, the feast did make it to St. Mary's in time to provide a wonderful Valentine's Day meal, said co-organizer Joan Pirtel.
Pirtel works together with co-organizer Alice Hines and a number of devoted volunteers to bring the program to St. Mary's annually. About 150 signed up to do everything from visit to cook to provide food, serve meals, and socialize, said Pirtel. Others stop by just to add to the camaraderie created nightly.
"Every night, we've been averaging about 44 people here to help," said Pirtel.
On Feb. 14, the night's meal was complimented by heart-laced paper placemats and handmade Valentine's Day cards made by students of St. Mary's School for the men. For Gregory, one of the shelter men enjoying the meal, the kindness of the church and the community was like coming home, in more ways than one.
"I was a member of this parish for 20 years," said Gregory, who saw much success in the construction industry, including running his own company. "My father lived in a house behind the [St. Mary's] school."
Gregory raised his family in East Haven. He said he's enjoying his Abraham's Tent experience because it's allowing him a view into different types of faith organizations. At his table, sharing jokes and stories, was one of many friends made along the way, Monsignor David Walker of St. Mary's Church.
For Kwasi, another man in the program, Abraham's Tent is not only a way to stay out of the cold, but hopefully a way to make a connection and get back into the work force, too. The New Haven native's traveled as far as Massachusetts to find work. A job in the Springfield area led to a string of jobs in his home state, including his most recent, a full-time maintenance position with his own room on the premises. After several months, however, the work dried up.
"That's pretty much what brought me back to New Haven," Kwasi told The Sound.
There are only a limited number of places in New Haven offering shelter for the homeless nightly, and the competition can be fierce. Signing on with Abraham's Tent guaranteed his bed each night, and also freed up the space in the New Haven shelter for other guys in need, he said.
"Before, I gotta hurry to get in line, because there's only so many spaces and there are guys that have nothing to do but stand there. That was kind of rough," said Kwasi. "I'm out looking for jobs, but I gotta hurry up and cut it short to get somewhere to sleep."
Columbus House transports the men of Abraham's Tent back to the New Haven site daily, where they can store their belongings. Kwasi spends his afternoons looking for work, including taking turns (30 minutes at time) to search for jobs online, submit applications, and follow-up on free computers available through another service program, Safe Haven.
Kwasi said he's also hoping that, by rotating through different faith organizations supplying shelter for Abraham's Tent, he will make a connection that could lead to work.
"So this is what I was searching for, because this could be an opportunity to meet people, and you never know," he said.