Homeless Outreach a Labre of Love for JCU students

By Yvonne Bruce

It’s five o’clock on a Friday evening at John Carroll University. Classes are over, and students are thinking about dinner and making plans for their evening out. But inside a dinning room in the student union building where about twenty students have gathered to put together a meal, those plans do not include going to a movie or a concert or a club, and the dinner being put together is not themselves.

These students are participating in the Labre Project, a food-and-fellowship gathering that brings a meal and a sympathetic ear to homeless people in Cleveland every Friday night. The Labre volunteers tote sandwiches and drinks wherever the homeless live-under bridges, in abandoned buildings, deep in the scrub that’s taken over empty lots and dead- end streets-and ask how they’re doing , ask after their friends and families, trade stories, tell Browns jokes, and perhaps exchange a few hand-shakes and hugs.

On this Friday in February, one of the coldest nights of the winter, Brendan McLaughlin was coordinating the food preparation at the John Carroll dining hall. Brendan and his friend and fellow freshman Brian Mauk began the Labre Project three years ago, when both were sophomores at St. Ignatius High School (their project is named for St. Labre, patron saint of homelessness). This would be the seventy-first week in a row one of them has made the Friday excursions.

As I bagged cookies and made sandwiches, more people tricked in. Not all of them were students: Chris, a sophomore, had brought his parents and his godmother. Dennis was a John Carroll alumnus. Some of those milling about looked as new as I was; some were clearly old hands. Matt, one of the first-timers, had come for a reason I would hear many times that night: a friend of his had done this, and loved it. The food and hot chocolate were packed up by 5:45, and Brendan called us all together for a brief orientation. He gave us newcomers a short history of the project and reminded everyone that our goal this night was primarily friendship. Food was secondary. I wondered how the homeless we would be visiting felt about these priorities. As we milled in the parking lot, waiting for the vans to pull around and discussing our routes (volunteers choose one of three routes through the city-East Side, Wild, Wild West, or Last Frontier). I asked a longtime Volunteer, James, what kept him coming back every Friday night. He seemed surprised at my question. Finally, he shrugged. “There’s nothing to keep me from not coming. I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t do this.” I took the Wild, Wild West route. The driver was another longtime volunteer, Patrick Prosser, who works in the John Carroll Financial Aid office and is a Board Member of the Coalition for the homeless. He asked us to introduce ourselves. As the volunteers in the back row began, I turned to watch the scenery. We were learning behind the affluent neighborhoods surrounding John Carroll-University Heights, Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights-on our way to the Cleveland city limits. Our first stop was a spot under the freeway near Jacobs Field. One of the Volunteers grabbed a sandwich, cookies, and a jumbo cup of hot chocolate, and we all jumped out. As we neared the protected angle of earth where the underpass meets the ground, the sounds of late rush-hour traffic faded slightly. “Jupiter, Dennis called out.                                           

There was a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary on a ledge of the underpass just above our heads; it marked the entrance to Jupiter’s home. I took a picture of it, feeling like a trespasser. Dennis called again. We saw some of Jupiter’s things and his bike stashed neatly under some brush, but no Jupiter. We left the steaming hot chocolate on another ledge in case Jupiter came back early. It turned out that many of the people we had come out to visit tonight would not be “home.” Dennis said they had likely gone to a shelter because of the cold. Knowing a little something about the many dangers that face the long- term homeless, I hoped Dennis was right. The next part of our route took us through areas of the West Side I had never seen before. At one stop, near a mixed residential area somewhere between the Cuyahoga River and Ohio city, we hiked through a large, brushy field. I-90 angled upward to our left. A few cats, clearly used to the outdoors but not feral, walked with us until we got to an elaborate lean –to built at the bottom of a freeway berm. The cats hurried ahead to rub against the legs of the people who came out of the lean-to to greet us. The residence was ingeniously constructed. A chest-high concrete wall ran parallel to the berm, and it was in between these that the lean-to was constructed and against the wall itself that the fire was burning and reflecting its warmth into the living space. Most of my fellow volunteers brought out the food and drink and renewed their acquaintance with the five people who were sharing these quarters. One of the residents was standing apart, so I introduced myself and mentioned how much I liked cats.

This fellow, Gary, scooped one up. “Oh, yeah, me too,” They nuzzled.” This is Momma Cat. There’s Tinker Cat over there’ and Baby Cat’s around somewhere. Gary and I talked about his past. He was from the south but had lived all over the country. I expressed surprise that he would stay for the Northeast Ohio winters, but he had been involved for years in a relationship with a woman from Cleveland and had many friends and acquaintances in the area. Cleveland, he said, was home. By the time we left Gary, Barbara, Paul, Jim, and Karen, forty-five minutes had gone by and I was starting to feel the single-digit cold. So were the other first-timers. Our next stop was at the side of a pitted and potholed street running through a largely deserted industrial area. Through the bare trees and scrub I saw the glow of a fire. We got out with our food and hot chocolate and walked toward it, Dennis and Pat calling out again. Bruce came down to greet us. He lived here with Jim-Bob and Bosco the cat, a tiny ball of fur I picked up more for warmth than out of friendliness. Bruce and Jim-Bob seemed oblivious to the cold, but we first- timers huddled around the fire while Bruce regaled us with Browns jokes. “How do you keep Browns players out of your yard? Put a goalpost in it.” We laughed through chattering teeth. Matt, the first-time volunteer who was crowding me out of my toasty spot by the fire, hadn’t brought a hat or gloves. I kept shifting my weight from foot to foot, trying to keep the freezing ground away from my thin-soled boots. By this time, the wind chill was well below zero. Thirty minutes later, just as I though I would have to go back to the van for warmth, we left. Jim-Bob hugged all of us goodbye. I noticed his gloveless hands had grown swollen and hard from constant exposure to the cold.

Our last stop of the night took us down to the banks of the Cuyahoga. We were looking for Charles, but there was no trace of him or his camp, no matter how far into the brush Pat and Dennis searched and called. As we pulled away and headed downtown, I thought with irony that there had been more of the volunteers out tonight than the homeless people we had been looking for. A phone call to the other vans confirmed that they had encountered a lot of absences, too. We agreed to meet early at the usual rendezvous, Public Square. Our van reached the square in a matter of minutes, and we parked at the corner of Daniel Thompson Way. Pat and Dennis told us that there was a group who usually camped down Daniel Thompson, a street the Labre volunteers call simply “The Alley,” so we gathered up more sandwiches and hot chocolate and set off. As we neared the end of the block, three minivans with Metro Church Ministries painted on their sides passed us and turned left. A few more minutes’ walk brought us to a line of homeless individuals camped on the sidewalk in angle formed by two buildings. They were bundled up in sleeping bags and blankets and being approached by a half-dozen Metro Church volunteers. We stopped. “Guess they beat us it,” said Dennis. Back to the square we went. Matt’s ears were bright red and his lips were turning blue, yet he managed to outstrip me on the race to the van. Matt and I and the other first-timers piled in and shivered uncontrollably. The other two vans had pulled in behind us, and I looked through the window at the seasoned volunteers standing outside chatting. I saw Brian Mauk laughing with two men near the Public Square fountain. Chris stood with his parents and godmother talking with another group of tattered and unshaven souls-everyone was smiles and laughter-and I saw that Brendan was right: the homeless individuals I had met tonight and now watched through the van windows did indeed seem hungrier for human contact than for food. At last we were off. As we headed back to John Carroll, we raided the leftover sandwiches and cookies and talked about whom we’d met and what we had seen. The conversation drifted away to classes and majors and hobbies and television shows, and I felt a part of the camaraderie that brought so many of these students back Friday after Friday. It was after ten o’clock when we pulled up to school and unloaded the van. I was dead tired, but the other volunteers, pumped up by their experience, seemed, ready to go out again. As I made my goodbyes and headed toward my car, Brendan left me with a final reminder:

“We’re here every Friday. Come see us again.”

The Labre Project welcomes donations. For more information, email Brian Mauk at bmauk@jcu.edu

Copyright NEOCH for the Homeless Grapevine Sept – Dec. 1994  Issue 7