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A Meal and a Bed, Served with Compassion

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By Michael Gold

The men walk into the First Presbyterian Church in Ossining from the cold March night, brief snow showers preceding their arrival. Their jackets don’t look warm enough for the brisk weather.

Many of them arrived from jobs as day laborers, putting up Sheetrock, cutting trees or painting houses and getting paid in cash. Others have been drinking. They’re from Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and maybe other countries. They don’t speak English, but they’re all vaccinated against COVID-19.

William Caruso greets them as they walk in. He’s the night supervisor. The men call him, “Mister” or “Bill.” He inspects their backpacks to make sure they’re not carrying liquor or drugs into the overnight shelter.

“Alcohol is disrespectful to me and the church. I will check them,” Caruso said.

The men, and one woman, will find a bed among the 16 air mattresses that are laid out in the church’s Fellowship Hall. They will eat a meal of pulled pork, rice and beans and salad and go to bed at 10 p.m. In the morning, they clear out, to try to get another job for the day or to wander the streets.

This is the Emergency Shelter Partnership (ESP) at work, a program that runs from December through the beginning of April for the homeless to get indoors every night during the harsh New York winters, administered by churches, synagogues and mosques in northern Westchester, from Armonk to Tarrytown.

The shelter rotates among different churches in Ossining each month. The House of Refuge Apostolic Church hosted the homeless in January. Star of Bethlehem hosted in February. It was First Presbyterian’s turn in March. Other churches in the area, from Mount Kisco, Bedford Hills and Croton-on-Hudson, to Scarborough, Briarcliff Manor and Chappaqua provide funds, food and volunteers, that buy and bring in supplies and food and cook the meals.

Before the pandemic, the program deployed a van to drive those seeking shelter overnight to various houses of worship in the area, but the possibility of spreading COVID, with all the men crowded in the van, meant that ESP had to stop the van, said Rev. Tim Ives, who helps to run the program.

“We had to change the model,” Ives explained, “so people can walk to our doors without getting a van ride.”

The partnership began to give people “some kind of option where they weren’t stuck outside in the winter,” Ives said.

The local houses of worship were “buildings that we heat anyway, so we said let’s see if we can put that together,” he said.

“I feel some compassion for these guys,” Caruso said. “I feel a kinship to them. I want to get them to stop drinking and get an apartment or a job. I’ve encouraged them to join AA (Alcoholics Anonymous).”

“One of my guys died on the street in Ossining. He was a really good guy,” Caruso explained. “He had a job down in Queens. He was in his 40s. He helped me with translation with the guys. He was out on a street corner and found dead.”

Another problem for the homeless, Caruso said, is they often play the state lottery to get money quickly.

“It’s a big problem. It’s a losing cause,” Caruso said. “They’re digging a bigger hole.”

The men “don’t know how to save money,” he explained. “They get $100 in their pocket. They spend it.”

“In this world, it’s essential that we care about each other,” Ives said. “You need all kinds of really good-hearted and wonderful people looking for a way to help and make the world better.”

“They’re just humans who have gotten caught in a bad situation,” said Duna Williamson, a volunteer and member of First Presbyterian who helps work with the people walking in, three nights a week.

“I go around to each bed and say goodnight, and some shake my hand. Some will give me a hug. They’ll say, ‘goodnight, Mamma.’ They’re so sweet. I can’t help but love them.”

Williamson said she has seen some of them out on the street.

“One of them pushes a cart. Some of them have had some kind of traumatic experience. Some have seen their parents killed by gangs. One got in a motorcycle accident. Some of them have kids,” she said.

Those seeking shelter that night weren’t comfortable with a reporter looking in on them, so I stayed in the hallway and spoke with Caruso and Williamson.

“I don’t think anybody wants to be here,” Williamson said.

Caruso said he wants to see more job program opportunities for the homeless, health insurance, low-income housing, AA meetings and information for them on what other shelters to go to after the winter months end.

“At ESP meetings, we talk about the limits of the program,” Ives said. “We wish we could do more.”

Michael Gold has had articles published in the New York Daily News, the Albany Times Union, The Virginian-Pilot, The Palm Beach Post and other newspapers.

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