April 28 -May 4
VOL 124 NO. 16
Dorothy Days by Night
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Local men to be honored for decades of service to the poor
For 25 years, men like Mike Krok and James Brown have been coming to the Oxford Inn in order to receive shelter, warmth and basic human dignity. And for 25 years men like Henry Nicolella, Mike Sullivan and Mike Milholland have been waiting there for them.
“In winter time, it’s life or death,” said Brown, who has been coming to the shelter for the past two years. Brown, a self-described alcoholic, lost his job when the Del Monte plant closed.
Krok, who haunts West Fayette Street and Onondaga Boulevard with his sign asking for food in return for work, isn’t sure if he will ever be able to exchange the cards he has been dealt.
An alcoholic since the age of 13, Krok said he’s “been in and out of this place for years.” Numerous trips to rehab clinics have failed to reverse the course his life took when he first found he could not put the bottle down.
Very few of the men who come here will ever be rehabilitated, but that isn’t really the point.
“Most of our guys started out behind the eight-ball and they’ll be there their whole lives,” Sullivan said.
Nevertheless, he added, there must be some mechanism for keeping these men from falling even further through the cracks in society.
“There has to be some kind of safety net there to give these guys the basic creature comforts that everybody needs,” Sullivan said.
For providing that safety net over the past two decades, Sullivan, Nicolella and Milholland will be honored with the Dorothy Day Award at a dinner in St. Andrew the Apostle Church. The church has sponsored the award since 1994. An official release from Catholic Charities said, the church has “given the award to those whose life and actions exemplify the life and actions of Day.”
Each of the recipients was inspired to work at the Oxford Inn by an interest in the work in Day and the Catholic Worker movement.
Day was among the founding members of the Catholic Worker movement, which established a network of houses of hospitality for the very poor.
Local Catholic activist Jerry Berrigan knew Day personally. He believes that she defined herself through her service to the poor.
“Through her life, she discovered and determined that if anyone could be loved more than others, then they were the poor and that was affirmed by the fact that Christ lived with the poor,” he said. “She always sought out the poor, concerned herself with the poor and talked to the poor.”
He also volunteered at the Oxford Inn for 20 years and knows Nicolella, Sullivan and Milholland.
“They are male Dorothy Days,” said Berrigan, who is a previous recipient of the award. “They have lived as persons, as men, and earned a living serving the poor. And they have done that with finesse, skill and dedication and they’re being recognized for it.”
The three men comprise the senior staff at Oxford Inn and each of them spends a few nights a week managing the place working a shift that stretches from 7 or 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m. The shelter provides men with basic necessities such as laundry, showers, toilets and beds. Whenever possible, food is provided for the men.
As a religion major at Syracuse University, Nicolella was propelled into the Catholic Worker movement by the radicalism of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. He began working at Unity Kitchen in 1970 and Sullivan joined him there in 1974.
“It was the era when people were doing that kind of thing,” Nicolella said. “I was coming more from the Catholic Worker angle of it than the leftist kind of political program.”
Both moved over to the Oxford Inn when it opened and Milholland joined the fulltime staff in 1986.
Oddly, their tenure at Oxford Inn has seen very few violent instances.
“It does surprise me when you consider you’ve got this big room here full of anywhere from 70 to 100 people and 90 percent of them have a serious problem of one sort or another and yet you don’t really have that many problems,”
Nicolella said. He estimated that in the 25 years he has been at the Oxford Inn there have been perhaps “a handful” of violent confrontations.
He did note, however, that there was a fairly serious stabbing incident once during which a man had to be taken to the hospital.
Although they are usually socially hampered by drug or alcohol problems, Nicolella noted that most of the men who shelter in Oxford Inn are decent enough.
“Most of them are actually very nice. A lot of them have real problems,” he said. “We have people with alcohol and drug problems. When I first started, it was mostly alcoholics, but now you have a lot of crack addicts and people who do both. So you’ve got people who have issues like that and you’ve got other folks who have mental health problems.”
What threatens Sullivan’s optimism is the steady influx of new faces, a symptom of the virus that has made real social change seemingly impossible.
In the past, Oxford Inn has averaged between 80 and 85 men per night, but more recently the staff saw those numbers swell to between 95 and 100.
In order to compensate for the expanding numbers, an annex called the Surge was developed on Onondaga Boulevard. No one is turned away from the Oxford Inn, so previously some men were relegated to blankets on the floor.
“Eighty or 85 we can manage comfortably, but over the last couple of years the numbers just keep rising,” Nicolella said. “What can you do? We really don’t turn people away.”