What’s on the Menu?

Feb. 9-15, 2006
What’s on the Menu?
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Hungry Get a Warm Meal and Good Company at St. Lucy’s

The same day that a story in the Post Standard highlighted the annual census of homeless in the city of Syracuse, about 20 people, mostly men, gathered in the old basement locker room at St. Lucy’s Gymnasium on the west side. Many of them spend nights at the Oxford Street Inn shelter but every Tuesday during the winter months they can find a warm meal and friendly conversation in the old building. They’re happy to have a slice of hot meatloaf instead of a cold sandwich for lunch.

The Post Standard article said there were 654 homeless counted last year and this year’s count won’t be ready for days. The number puts the 20 or 30 who come for breakfast and lunch on Tuesdays into perspective. A lot of people don’t have a place to go home to or a nourishing plate of food once a day.

Mary Maples and Marie Cullen are no strangers to St. Matthew’s Gospel. They are familiar with works of mercy, Maples through her work with children on Native American reservations throughout the Southwest, her help with Unity Acres in Orwell and her support of her parish, St. Lucy’s. Cullen is similarly known at her parish, St. Charles Borromeo. The two women recently prepared meatloaf, rice pilaf, mixed vegetables and bread for about 25 during their turn at serving at the Share program at St. Lucy’s. Cullen brought fresh fruit with her so that the crowd could take something home with them before they left in the early afternoon.

The men arrive around 9 a.m. for bagels, sweet rolls and hot coffee. They sit in well-worn chairs and at a long table, watching a movie and talking. Most of them remember Liz Gunther and Fran Bates, the two founders of the program. The two women served the homeless for years, treating them with kindness. The women are older now and leave the work to other volunteers these days. The memory of their compassion and warmth still lingers in contrast to the stale air of the basement.

“Liz and Fran,” one man said, “now they made you feel like you were somebody. That’s the kind of people they should make saints.” Heads nodded in agreement. There are snapshots of the women taped to the walls. They celebrated holidays, birthdays, the Super Bowl and all kinds of events with the homeless they served. Several of the men said Liz and Fran had gotten them eyeglasses and given them haircuts. There is a barber station in the corner of the locker room just waiting for someone to volunteer again.

Volunteers Leigh Hunt and Roth Baler were downstairs with the group getting ready to dish out lunch. Some of the guests joked with them telling them that “women know how to serve” better than men. Hunt is a former chief of police for the city. He comes to help out on Tuesdays because he enjoys it. “It makes me think about how fortunate we are to have a place to come home to,” Hunt said. He also said, aside from the “macho stuff,” about 90 percent of police officers join the force because they want to help people. He said it is sometimes tough to get to know the lunch crowd because the group is transient. And, a lot depends on the weather. The cold, wet days mean a high number of guests; warmer, clearer days mean fewer people.

Weyman Godley has lived at the Oxford Street Inn for a little over a year. He’s 54 years old and was born and raised in Syracuse. He said the city has a lot of help to offer the homeless, but no jobs. “And if you get a job, you gotta have transportation,” Godley said. “Getting there is not so bad, getting home is tough.” Godley questioned why Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll isn’t more open to the Destiny U.S.A. project. “Why would you want to stop it?” Godley asked. “Destiny could turn us around, fortify us.”

The men talked freely about different shelters — those in Binghamton and Scranton as well as those in Syracuse. They talked about the soup kitchens and the food provided. They talked about how women feel comfortable about approaching a men’s shelter for a bite to eat or to “hang out.” But, they said, a man is not welcome anywhere near a women’s shelter. “They’ll call the cops,” Godley said. “That’s not right. You wouldn’t want us near your shelter so you shouldn’t be at ours.”

Godley said the Ox, as the shelter is known, would empty out the next day because it would be the first of the month. “Around the 9th it’ll be filled up again,” he laughed. Father Jim Mathews, pastor of St. Lucy’s, is happy to host the lunch program. He usually stops downstairs to visit and to ask one of the group to offer a blessing before eating. All the stocking caps came off when he spoke to the men. Father Mathews explained that Liz and Fran approached him years ago about using the basement locker room for a gathering place. He said the Share program was opened more frequently back then. “Oh, they all knew each other back then,” Father Mathews said. “Fran and Liz loved and respected them. Now, we’re glad to be doing this. Volunteers come from the parish and outside the parish. It’s good for us and it’s good for them.”

Liz and Fran provided everything from eyeglasses to work boots and haircuts for the homeless. These days they still provide help if they happen to learn someone is in need. But, the folks at the Share program miss the women. They would like to get haircuts and maybe a shave, some new gloves and scarves and most of all, a job. And, they’d like to see more volunteers and some more recent video movies.
Anyone wishing to help out at the Share program on Tuesdays, or anyone wishing to donate to the program may call (315) 475-7273.

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