Shelter Beds at Immanuel Congregational Church, Hartford CT

This photo haunts me. How are the Hartford area homeless families that once slept in these beds coping today? Where are they? Where is home?

Don Shaw Jr.

On a freezing February 11, 2020, one of the 15 Tuesday nights from this past December through March that Hartford’s Immanuel Congregational Church volunteered as an overflow shelter during the coldest months of the year, I paused to take this photo of the shelter’s “bedroom.” The photo’s image has stuck in my mind ever since.

An Immanuel teammate and I had just set up Hartford Fire Department supplied cots in the church chapel, covering them neatly with fresh, clean sheets and pillows, and warm blankets. The converted chapel would sleep 12 members of homeless families that night. Where are they now? How are they?  Where is home?

In November 2019, with Hartford’s citywide shelter system rightly anticipating being pushed beyond capacity, Immanuel Congregational Church leadership answered the city’s call for help. It rallied 80 church members and friends to volunteer hosting an ad hoc shelter with the express purpose of serving overflow homeless families: parents, teenagers, and toddlers unable to secure shelter anywhere else in the Hartford.

Championed by church members Nancy Rion and Barbara Shaw (no relation), the Immanuel team was one of several Hartford faith communities committing one night a week during the winter to host homeless families. Its mission was to welcome, feed, and house stressed and confused families desperately seeking warmth, comfort, and nourishment. Homeless families swallow their pride moving from one place to another night after night, eating dinner with strangers, sleeping in crowded lodgings, accepting their surroundings silently, all the while tearfully hoping for a miracle. Their stories are complex, heartbreaking, and compelling.

With the current COVID-19 crisis mandates to stay home and maintain social  distancing, the participating faith communities closed their volunteer shelters mid-March. Wreaking countrywide havoc, the pandemic is affecting our lives in ways never imagined. Thousands of individuals and families heretofore living within relatively stable and secure comfort now face the daunting, if not overwhelming, challenges of finding food, employment, childcare, housing, and healthcare. The homeless are even more vulnerable. So, what do we do?

We need to learn from this critical moment engulfing our world. We need to learn what’s truly important in life. We need to learn the importance of dignity, equality, and respect. We need to learn to share our world’s abundance. We need to learn the importance of healing healthcare for everyone.  We need to learn how to help others help themselves. We need to recognize that everyone has a personal story of a real life filled with the hopes and dreams most of us share, and most of all to be accepted and pursue a purposeful life.

While I may be haunted by the photo of the empty beds, and thoughts of the safety and well being of the homeless we served, I believe we all need to step up and learn how to build a better world. How do we begin? Consider the words of my friend Rev. Dennis P. (Denny) Moon, Senior Minister, South Congregational Church of Granby: “Living in our society isn’t just about individual rights, but also the common good. In order to understand the common good, you must enter into the suffering of others.”

Don Shaw, Jr. is Director Emeritus of Hartford Area Habitat for Humanity. His blog is Red Truck Stonecatcher.

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