Nothing can prepare you for the experience of preparing and serving dinner to the ~50 residents of the Coordinated Homeless Outreach Center (CHOC) in Norristown. The courage, determination, and humility of those struggling with the basics is moving and a sobering reality. And in the midst of this, there is hope, happiness, and an amazing menu! But overwhelmingly the interesting part of the experience were the tomato gardening tips that St. Rose parishioners learned from CHOC residents. Most of us left wondering how we could not have known this before – and how you find wisdom in unexpected places!
On March 20th, St Rose hosted dinner at the CHOC facility in Norristown as part of our Hunger and Homelessness social justice efforts. The CHOC dinners give us a chance to sit down, eat, and socialize with the residents. Ever since CHOC moved facilities in mid-2017, they have been without an on-site kitchen. High quality hot meals don’t come frequent enough.
The social justice team has adopted CHOC as an area of focus, and we have a dinner every several months at their location. A cross-section of parishioners from St. Rose help by either preparing dinner at the parish center, donating items, transporting the meal to the facility, serving it to the residents and spending time with them, or a combination of these activities. It’s a team effort and people can donate as little or a much time as they can give. In addition to the dinner, several tenors associated with Gwynedd Mercy University provided traditional Irish music for the evening. We are especially grateful that the event could go on despite the wintery weather conditions.
Montgomery County declared a “Cold Blue” weather emergency because of wind chills below 20F and the impending storm. This means that the CHOC facility is opened-up for additional people on an emergency basis – making the need for dinner even greater. You quickly realize that there are the sheltered homeless, and then there are the truly unsheltered homeless people living on the streets. CHOC does not really receive extra resources when a Code Blue is declared – so the bountiful dinner was really welcomed. Coincidentally, our last visit on December 12, 2017, also was a code blue!
Most of us don’t drive past many homeless people in our daily routines. Montgomery County has a strong economy and an innovative public-private partnership called “Your Way Home” to make homelessness “rare, brief, and non-recurring”. The Your Way Home partnership offers a central intake process, counseling, transitional services, and suite of services to help people maintain housing (and prevent entering shelters or being street homeless). And it’s working – the January 2018 point-in-time count of homeless individuals in the county shows excellent results: a 37% reduction in homelessness from 2013 to 2018. But that still leaves about 300 people living in shelters or on the streets – and CHOC is perhaps the largest shelter in the county.
As the director of CHOC said in an interview “What I think most people don’t know is that the people that come to the shelter could be them. Their nieces, their nephews, their sons, their daughters, their sisters, their brothers. You realize as you get to know them, that they’re no different than you, they’re no different than me. We all want to have friends; we all want to have family. And the people coming to the shelter looking for help have lost so much of that already.” From Theater Horizon’s “Imagine No Homelessness” project
We find ourselves a mere 9 miles away from St Rose meeting Dan* a person that used to live in our parish boundaries, and Adam* – a man that had a failed relationship and could not afford the security deposit and first month’s rent on his own, and a twenty-something year old Gordon*. (*not their real names)
Gordon was trying to make his way from California to Connecticut slept on the street the night before. He was clearly looking for a way to store food for a future meal. He was a very hopeful person – and asked me a lot of questions about places that I have traveled.
We referred him to the Your Way Home call center, and also directed him to the Legion of Mary Brother House in Norristown for their services on Mondays and Thursdays. After a search, I found a piece of aluminum foil and gave it him. He was so thankful. He offered me a decal that he found commemorating the Eagles Super Bowl win – as he noticed my Eagles shirt. I refused, but he insisted. After all, he was from California not Philadelphia.
The most intriguing part of our visit was the conversations with Zach* (not his real name) – a former chef at a higher end local restaurant. He had tips for us on cooking meals and was readily comparing notes. As the conversation turned to gardening, we learned a new way to grow tomato plans called “trenching”. You basically plant the tomato on its side, and it should grow stronger roots – which leads to more tomatoes. You just need to help the stem make a gentle curve upwards.
Most of the St. Rose people never heard this technique – but clearly we are interested in trying it out. It was a big portion of our discussion at the social justice team meeting! So, we learned something new – and don’t be surprised if parishioners have better gardens this summer (if the snow ever ends).
As we packed up and headed out, one cannot help but contemplate the many facets of the situation the CHOC residents face. The courage and resilience of the residents, the dire situations they are in, and the fine line between having shelter and being on the street. That many of the problems seem so small and like they can be solved quickly – but yet the underlying ones are so large.
You realize that when someone becomes homeless, it isn’t just their home that they lose. It’s all the things a home brings with it – a place to socialize with friends and families. It’s a place to talk about Eagles decals and tomato plants.
Any interest in helping with the next dinner at CHOC? Contact us!