Steve Hays and Oliver Sellman

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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
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Anne Arundel 100

Homeless Find a Safe Harbor

Written by Barbara Geehan, River Gazette Editor

Steve Hays walks down the narrow streets of Annapolis these days and is often enthusiastically greeted by not only the local pillars of society but also by those who have been called the dregs of society, the homeless. “It’s like a moment from summer camp,” he says. “We hug and catch up.”

Hays, a St. Mary’s College of Maryland grad from the Class of ’83 who now runs his own nancial planning company, got to know the more unfortunate men of his town when 10 years ago he persuaded his church, First Presbyterian in downtown Annapolis, to open the doors of its meeting hall one freezing week a winter to shelter 25 homeless men. It is part of a county program, Winter Relief, organized by Arundel House of Hope. Fifty churches rotate responsibility through the winter to, as the House of Hope states, “keep those experiencing homelessness in the Baltimore/Annapolis corridor from freezing to death during the winter months and to show them God’s love in simple practical ways during our time together.”

Hays and the church are gearing up for this winter’s visit, scheduled for the week of February 22, and once again he and his group of volunteers will bend over backwards to make the experience unique. “We only have a week, and we want to make it as ve-star as possible,” he explains. There are snacks, movie night, clean bedding and facilities, hot showers, and – most important – an approach of warmth, respect and nurturing. “These are our guests,” says Hays. “Our message is ‘How you treat people is how you want to be treated.’ What goes around comes around. Now, it is not all peaches and cream; some of the homeless are dif cult to work and live with. But for so many, you can see so much good. So many are looking to be pointed in the right direction, to have a second chance.”

Steve Hays and Oliver Sellman (photo by Rev. William HathawayHundreds of Internet surfers have also gotten to know the guests of First Presbyterian through Hays’ annual online journal. “It started innocently as a logistical source, a place to list their needs and who’s up to volunteer,” says Hays. “But these simple logistical e-mails quickly turned into deeper, more meaningful insights into the lives of the men in the shelter. You hear their stories. Some of their stories, well, honestly, you can’t make this stuff up.”

There is “Ron,” who was just getting out of months of rehab, scared to death to be on the streets alone when he found the welcoming shelter. There is “Steve,” a Yale medical student with a family before an aneurism, coma, and brain damage sent his life into a downward spiral.

And Oliver Sellman. He now has a job with the church, and a roof over his head after meeting Hays and other church members during Winter Relief. The day we visited with him, he was painting old lumber from a turn-of-thecentury home next to the church that is being renovated for an Iraqi refugee family. He smiles often and answers our questions in a shy quiet tone.

Oliver Selman (photo by Rev. Steve Hays)Hays, who passionately believes in the project, explains: “With many of the homeless, it is a shame that they waste their lives when, with a little help, they can become productive and get more out of life.”

Is there an answer to the homeless situation? “There will always be that segment of our society that will need our help,” he says. “You cannot just depend on the government. It is up to you, and me, to help this vulnerable segment of our community.”

He then shows us a card delivered to the church after last year’s Winter Relief. “We are extremely grateful,” it simply states, and was signed by all the homeless guests. “It makes volunteering so worthwhile when you see the response,” says Hays

Below are excerpts from Hays’ previous years’ journals. To read the full text and read this year’s blogs as they are written, go to www.homelesshelper.org.

  • As I write this, 26 guests are sleeping soundly, crammed into our Fellowship Hall like sardines packed in a tin can. I asked Reuben, one of the homeless guests, if we would make it through the night packed in so tight. His response, “this isn’t so bad, other Churches pack us in tighter than this.” First Presbyterian’s Fellowship Hall . . . what was an empty room only hours earlier, was now a room filled to capacity; 26 homeless guests, each assigned a sleeping cot and a chair. A chair, on which for some rested all their worldly possessions.
  • Reuben seems to know all the men in the shelter. He knows that Terry snores like a freight train and should be placed by the back door, and that Tom, with only one leg, needs to be at the end of the aisle, so that he has access to his wheelchair. Reuben started drinking at the age of 10; by 13 he says, he was a heavy drinker. He’s now 39. He has been completely sober for over 7 months.
  • I noticed Albert was back in the shelter. On one hand I was glad to see him, but on the other hand, well . . . it means he’s still homeless. Please understand when you hang out at the shelter and get to know these “guests” certain bonds form. I am still amazed at his senseless act of compassion I witnessed the last time I saw him in Fellowship Hall: It was 2004. Back then we had a long-term guest named “Mr. B.” Mr. B was an elderly man who fit the description of your stereotypical homeless person; long, stringy, filthy hair and beard to match. A pack rat type, he collected all kinds of garbage, and had dirty bags of stuff everywhere. Of all his bad habits, none were worse than his refusal to take a shower. The stench from this man was unbearable. Guests in the shelter were constantly in an uproar about Mr. B. One evening midway through the week, Albert quietly, without fanfare, kneeled before this man, removed the old man’s shoes and socks, washed his feet in a small tub of warm soapy water, gently patted the old man’s feet dry, sprinkled them with talcum powder, removed a clean pair of white soft socks from his own pack, and placed them on this old man’s feet.
  • A Needs Board is posted in Fellowship Hall. Guests are encouraged to write down their needs. Usually guests ask for a pair of jeans, a winter jacket, a pair of boots. The list is sent by e-mail to hundreds of church members who go about fulfilling the requests. Bill, a good-looking and well-spoken guy, pulled me aside and asked, “Do you think it would be OK if I asked for some minutes for my cell phone? I just got out of jail.” I assured him cell phone minutes were within the parameters.
  •  Underneath the appeal for a pair of size 10 boots and a large sweatsuit was a request by one of the younger guests. It read simply: a job and a home.
  • I looked incredulously at David. He was grinning ear to ear, and my only thought was “Pal what are you talking about ‘being blessed.”’ Take a look around, you’re homeless! He laughed and said, you gave me all new clothes. I got to throw away that D.O.C. (Department of Corrections) jacket. I joked with him that we could have made some real money selling it on eBay.
  • “Shelter Justice” is what they call it. They are used to being desperate (generally due to addictions) and will pretty much steal anything. The guests I spoke to don’t seem angry about it, it’s just the way it is. Once in the shelter for a while, though, they say the desperation subsides and their behavior becomes more “civilized.” Most shelter veterans keep a close eye on their possessions – just a part of shelter life.
  • The guests at the shelter really want to watch the Super Bowl. However, the church does not have cable. If anyone has a satellite dish that we could use for the game please let me know ASAP.
  • Medical issues are abundant this year. Kelvin suffers kidney problems. Billy, cerebral palsy and epilepsy, has a great outlook on life and will not tolerate people trying to control him. Clarence has lymphoma, but no family to take care of him. His mother is in end stage cancer and his stepfather has his hands full taking care of her.
  • How the heck can you have been in prison for so long, and still have such a good attitude about life? That’s the question I asked Oliver while sitting around one of the dining room tables. Oliver is 5’10,” dark skinned, great smile, shoulders the width of our great state of Maryland. He grew up in Annapolis, on a farm, spreading hay on the small fields that his family owned. He’s been locked up for 15 years, and he’s not that old. Conveyed through his words and demeanor, he said in so many ways, “I am out of jail. I am extremely sorry for what I did in my youth. I live with guilt every day, I would just like one opportunity at a second chance in life.”
  • Who are the homeless? Four years ago, Steve was in his first semester at Yale medical school when he started getting headaches, and one night he blacked out. He showed me his medical records, aneurysm, meningitis, hydrocephalus. He is sure God has kept him alive for a special purpose. Do we know the homeless?
  • Driving the guys down to the Annapolis Rec Center to take showers gets them talking as a group. Theyagreed there is a segment of homeless that are bums, alcoholics, drug addicts and the like, this segment more or less sponges off society. But they felt that a large segment are people who through no fault of their own were injured or became ill and couldn’t cope.
  • If you have walked up and down Main Street a few times, you would recognize him. A cup held out – belligerent, nasty, usually mumbling some profanity. As I rounded Conduit Street, there he was, that S.O.B. is going to be in our shelter all week!…. Right before I left the shelter that night, I had a chance to talk with him. Robert, do you have any idea how many times I have passed you over the years? He gave it some thought, I don’t know 100? Maybe 1,000? I continued, you know most of the time you were pretty nasty? Surprisingly, he answered, “If I said anything to hurt your feelings I am sorry. Who you passed on the sidewalk wasn’t me. It was only a shell of who I am.” Robert is now off the streets and the change in him is amazing. He has probably thanked me a dozen times for everything the Church has done.
  • Due to snow last night and this morning, the schools were closed. I thought surely our van drivers would be delayed, but they showed up on time. Breakdown of the shelter went extremely fast, and we transitioned back into Fellowship Hall in no time at all. Looking back on the week, I am in awe. The incredible support of volunteers, the support and help of our guests. Serving humanity – a week at a time. We don’t warehouse the homeless; we simply celebrate life with new friends. Until next year…