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Faith in Action

Faith in Action

Members of St. Christina of Tyre Orthodox Mission in Fremont, California have been serving lunch at their local homeless shelter every month since the Mission's founding. Feeding people without homes—caring for the poor face-to-face—is an eye-opening, spiritually rewarding charitable activity, which can be done by anyone from 5 to 95! We would like to give the good people in other parishes answers to some FAQ’s we have learned over the years, so they can consider giving hands-on help to people who are homeless too.

  • Who are the Homeless?
    Most people staying at our local Tri-City Homeless Coalition Shelter work full time. They have families. The children go to school. Many go to church regularly. Most love cheeseburgers, barbeque chicken, fresh fruit, and brownies. They are grateful for a good meal. Homelessness affects men, women and children. I have met people at shelters who are past retirement age, and I have seen three-day-old infants. Some people who are homeless have medical or physical disabilities; some people have problems with drugs or alcohol; some people have suffered crises or emergencies—but most people without homes are simply unable to pay ever-increasing rents or mortgages, especially during this economic downturn. 

  • What are Homeless Shelters like?
    There are many different types of Homeless Shelters. 

    Drop-in shelters and winter refuges
     provide shelter one night at a time. They are usually big, serving 100-300 people, and located in National Guard Armories or other large gymnasium-like structures. They provide a mat on the floor, a hot meal, and bathroom facilities. Kitchen facilities are usually very limited. Most people using drop-in shelters are adults, and many have underlying physical or mental problems. Drop-in shelters usually ask for adult volunteers only, and food preparation usually has to be done off-site. Feeding 100-300 drop-ins is hard work, but very rewarding.

    Rotating shelters are smaller, (around 15-30 people) and provide short-term shelter. Shelter rotates from one church to another, in a different location every month. Most people using rotating shelters are adults, and most work. The parishes that offer shelter also provide most meals, but welcome help from other charitable organizations. Rotating shelters are good places to offer one-time help.

    Transitional shelters are shelters that house people for longer terms, ranging up to a year and a half. Transitional shelters take in families with children, as well as single adults. These shelters provide counseling, education, job-training, and other resources to help families get back on their feet for good. Transitional shelters, like our own local Tri-City Homeless Coalition shelter, and like Raphael House, are generally clean and have helpful staff members and residents. They may sign up volunteer groups that commit to serving a lunch or dinner once a month. The shelter staff will advise new groups, and the shelter will often offer some training in food handling, or allow new groups to observe a lunch or dinner, to see how it is done. Youth-groups and children old enough to be of help are usually welcomed volunteers at transitional shelters.

    Some shelters provide help to certain specific types of people, such as young people, or battered women. Battered Women’s Shelters are always grateful when church groups collect and donate useful items like non-perishable foods and personal-care items, but they do not allow church groups to volunteer in the shelter, because the location where battered women are sheltered is kept secret for the women and children’s safety. 

  • What can we do to help?
    The first rule for helping people, is give them what they need. If there is a shelter for homeless people in your area, call and ask what kind of help they can use. Some shelters need school supplies, others need trial-size toothpastes or socks. Some desperately need people to cook food, others need people to do paperwork. Ask the staff—they will help you help them.
    Helpful Tips for food preparation:
    1) Check out the kitchen facilities. Be prepared. Is there an oven; a grill; a refrigerator? How big? Do they work? Is there room to keep left-overs? Does the shelter provide food supplies? Spices, salt and pepper, or oil? Is there a working can opener? You should know all the answers to these questions ahead of time. Remember that it can take a long time to defrost and heat up large pans of food. 
    2) Use food-service rules. Wear gloves and aprons. Wash your hands carefully. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Avoid foods that spoil easily, like eggs and mayonnaise. 
    3) Keep it simple and familiar. The favorite meal we ever made at a shelter was grilled cheeseburgers, chips, and fresh fruit. “Shake and Bake” chicken, soup with lunch-meat sandwiches, sloppy joes, pizza, spaghetti, and burritos are also popular. Keep spices mild--salsa, barbeque sauce and hot peppers can all be available on the side, when appropriate. Know the ingredients, so you can tell people what is in the food if they ask. People can be allergic to anything. Allergies to nuts are especially dangerous, so nuts of all kinds should be avoided. 
    4) Foods to avoid: Nuts, alcohol, cooking wines, and poppy seeds. If you are serving pork (including ham, bacon, most sausages and hot dogs), have something different for Jews and Muslims. Have a vegetarian option for people who don’t eat meat. (Conversely, if you are serving a meal during Great Lent, make something with cheese or eggs. The guests at the shelter do not have to observe your own fasting periods.) 
    5) Make enough food. A rule of thumb is to bring about ¼-1/3 pound of beef or ½ pound of chicken or turkey (counting bones and skin) per person. It is easier to know how much food to cook and serve when you have an easily-identifiable serving. If your local shelter houses 100 people, it is easy to count 100 hamburger patties, burritos, or 100 chicken legs. If you are serving casseroles, have serving spoons that provide standard-sized servings.
    6) Relax! The people you are serving are happy to see you and grateful for a good meal. If your meal is running late, if you drop a plate, if someone has special needs or requests—it’s ok! Talk to the residents, ask for help from the staff if you need it, be friendly, and you will have a good experience.

"If a brother or a sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, 
‘Go in Peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, 
what does it profit?” (James 2:15-16)

This article was written by a member of St. Christina of Tyre Orthodox Mission in Fremont, California.  For more information about the mission visit their website at www.stchristinaorthodox.org, e-mail them at mail@stchristinaorthodox.org, or phone them at 510-739-0908. 

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