Week of working with homeless ignites woman's passion'An amazing ride'
Hope — A friend's casual remark led Susan Craft to embark on an experience that challenged her fears and changed her life.
Craft spent a week in January working at the New York City Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter in New York City's SoHo district on the lower east side of Manhattan. Not only did she help out in various ways in the shelter's kitchen, she also met and talked with a number of homeless people in the course of her daily routine. Each day, she walked and rode the subway from Harlem, where she stayed, to the shelter. She met people living on the streets in Dunkin Donuts, in subway stations, even when she was waiting for her bus back to Maine.
Before this experience, Craft said in the blog she kept while she was in New York, “I have often touted the words, 'I have a heart for the homeless.'” A few years ago, she and her husband insulated their garage and turned half of it into a living space for a friend who was homeless. He stayed for a year, repaying them by doing odd jobs. Now he is in a “permanent shelter,” according to Craft's blog.
Last summer, she said, she was feeling empty and dissatisfied with the direction of her life. When she told a friend how she felt, the friend suggested volunteering in a homeless shelter in New York. According to Craft's blog, “she wasn't talking about me, but anyone can! I went home with that blaring in my ears.”
Once the idea had taken root in her, “God just took it from there,” Craft said.
Why did she not practice her charity closer to home? After all, there are homeless shelters in Maine.
“I wasn't called to do that,” she said. And when she arrived in New York, "I knew I was where I was supposed to be."
Craft added she felt there were particular things she had to learn from going to New York, where she had never been before, except in traveling to somewhere else. One of those lessons was the way the Rescue Mission treats the people it serves:
“It was a privilege for me to be there,” and the staff behaved as if they felt privileged to be there, too, she said, according each person respect and dignity.
Craft had sent inquiries to several Manhattan churches about places to stay, and finally found a bed for most of the week at St. Hilda's House, an Episcopal convent. Her last few days she stayed in the apartment of a family friend that turned out to be just a few blocks from the convent. She raised the $800 for lodging and other expenses by telling people at her church – Chestnut Street Baptist Church in Camden – and other friends about her trip. Several people offered to help.
Craft's work at the shelter was in the kitchen, cutting bread, peeling vegetables, setting tables, washing dishes, helping to cook and serve an evening meal to around 200 people. She said on the coldest days the shelter would allow people to come in off the street and stay warm in its chapel. On those days, termed “code blue,” the chefs would also prepare lunch.
The rescue mission has 80 beds for transients, Craft explained, and is expanding to accommodate 160. The shelter has another 30 beds for men in its nine to 12-month residential program for recovering alcoholics and addicts, which the expansion will also double. Each resident is required to work at the shelter, she said. Help in finding a job is also provided to residents graduating from the program.
Craft talked with one transient, Christopher, who was in his 40s. He told her “I made some bad decisions, and I wound up here.” She described him as “a really good guy.”
Not content merely to travel between her lodging and the shelter and carry out her volunteer responsibilities, Craft went out of her way to meet and speak to homeless people.
On several occasions, she offered to buy breakfast for someone at the Dunkin Donuts where she stopped on her way to the shelter if they would sit down and talk to her. She asked them questions. She asked permission to photograph them. She told them about the rescue mission, that they could always get a hot meal there, and gave them subway fare to get there.
One of these people was a woman who opened the door of the Dunkin Donuts for Craft and smiled at her. Something inside made her turn around and ask if she could get something for this self-appointed greeter, Craft said. Soon, she learned that the woman's name was Cookie, she was 42, and had lost her job as a cashier.
“She ate her sandwich like she hadn't eaten for days,” Craft said.
While the two women were talking, Cookie started to cry. “She grabbed me, and she hugged me and she kissed me on the cheek,” Craft said.
A couple of days later, she met Anthony, a homeless man who walked with a cane, at the doughnut shop and bought him breakfast as well. He, too, had lost his job, “and now I'm on the street,” he told her. Afterward, “I cried all the way to the subway and all the way to the shelter,” she said.
Another time, she was walking through the subway and came upon a man playing the guitar for change. After walking by, she turned around and came back to talk to him. “I was astounded by the many that walked by without even acknowledging him,” she said. She talked to the man for a while, learned that his name was Cee, and that he, too was homeless on and off. She offered him some money in exchange for his agreeing to have his picture taken.
According to her blog, Cee said, “You really respect me. Others have done it [taken his picture] without asking.”
These meetings made Craft see that homelessness was real, and made her want to do more to help.
“Giving them coffee and a few dollars for the subway was not enough.”
Not everything went smoothly. Craft said she got lost repeatedly trying to navigate the city. There was a temporary mix-up about the address of her friend's apartment when she had to leave the convent part-way through the week, and she went to a vacant lot at first. And some of the volunteers at the shelter at first thought she was a mere tourist "slumming" while on vacation, she said.
Throughout, she said, she learned to trust God for the details and got acquainted with what her blog calls “that four-letter word, 'wait.'” She denied that she had been brave in approaching people to ask them about their lives, attributing her actions to divine prompting.
Reflecting on the week, she said, "I had a lot of fear of stepping out and doing this." But the experience made her more compassionate, she said, and enabled her to truly connect with others.
Craft's last day in the city was spent helping one of the shelter chefs, who is also the associate pastor of a church in Brooklyn, at his church's food pantry. “That was a really cool experience,” she said.
She came back to Maine feeling she had found her passion: working with the homeless, especially by feeding them. Serving the meal at the shelter, “was the most humbling experience I've ever had,” she said.
She has started volunteering at the soup kitchen at St. Bernard's Church in Rockland, and has applied to help out at Hospitality House in Rockport, where she is waiting for a background check. Craft wants to learn to cook, she said, and open a mobile soup kitchen.
She plans to go back to the rescue mission for four or five days this spring, and hopes to take others who have expressed interest along.
Her week helping the homeless changed how Craft sees her life, she said.
“It really made me think about the things I do on a daily basis. … It was an amazing ride.”
Ed. note: This story has been updated to include the name of the shelter where Sue Craft volunteered.
Sarah E. Reynolds is a reporter for the Camden Herald.
Sarah E. Reynolds has been a reporter and writer for more than 20 years, winning awards from the Maine Press Association and other professional organizations. She loves to read, hike and play word games.