By Connie Berry
When John Abel died Sept. 23 of this year he left behind two families — the one he grew up with and the one he lived with under the Beech Street bridge.
The home John presided over under the bridge in Syracuse has the makings of anybody’s home — a red carpet, a couple of sofas and an easy chair, a coffee table, a couple of mattresses and even a clothesline, albeit one strung between two orange and white striped plastic road construction drums. Visitors get the feeling they should knock before they walk onto the red rug. John’s gone but there are photos of him stuck to the concrete not far from the drain pipe that pours a steady stream of runoff from the highway above. That’s where John showered occasionally.
Accounts of John from friends and family describe someone who had his share of demons. John was incarcerated more than once and was addicted to alcohol. Sometimes he would stay with his sister Christine Delamater and her husband up in Orwell. John stayed at Unity Acres there for a while. He even shared an apartment with his friend Paul Harris for just about a year. Paul is a Vietnam veteran and when he found himself homeless in Syracuse, John showed him the ropes and helped him navigate street life. John knew how to get a free meal from some of the restaurants around the city. He worked some of the time, making a few bucks here and there. When John had more than he needed, he took care of his friends.
Bobby Magee lives on the streets in Syracuse and stayed under the Beech Street bridge with John and some of the other homeless who sleep there.
“I knew Johnny for seven or eight years,” Magee said. “He was a friendly guy. There were things about him I didn’t agree with but he knew that and he had no problem with that. Basically, homeless take care of homeless and Johnny was real good about that. If we get something, we share it — except our beer.”
When Bobby holds his sign that reads “homeless…please help…God bless” at the highway ramps — the homeless call it “flying the sign” — he has good days and bad. “The worst day I’ve had is $2.50 and the best was $180,” Bobby explained. “My first option is to get some beer and then I get something in my belly and maybe some clothes.”
John and Bobby had another thing in common — a compulsion or desire to keep living on the streets. When John stayed at his sister’s or with Paul, he always looked out the window. Bobby said there’s a freedom about living on the street. There’s no one to answer to and no rules to follow.
“You have a sense of well-being because you’re on your own,” Bobby said. “I guess there’s a sense of being free. I’ve lived under the bridge, in camps and parks. I guess it all boils down to nobody can tell you what to do.”
Like John, Bobby has lived in apartments and he even owned his own home for a while.
“The nature of being homeless always calls me back,” he said. “I love the outdoors and nature and I think Johnny was the same way.”
Christine tried to help her brother even though he felt the same urge to go back to the bridge. It was Christine who got the call from Crouse Hospital after John died at a local shelter. He had been to Crouse before and listed her as next of kin. She’s still trying to deal with the guilt of not driving down to Syracuse and picking him up when he called a couple of weeks before he died.
Christine works almost every day and has a family of her own. She loved John dearly and held a memorial service for him up north. Christine said John struggled with demons when he was growing up and her parents, she said, did their best. Her dad was an orphan and worked two jobs because he had a real need to make absolutely sure his own kids had a roof over their heads, Christine explained. This might have meant he wasn’t home with them as much as John would have liked, she said. John’s adult life was spent in and out of trouble and living on the streets much of the time.
“He’d stay with us a while but I always used to say, ‘You can take John out of Syracuse but you can’t take Syracuse out of John,’” Christine said.
When John stayed with her, she said, “He had more house manners than most people I know and he lived under a bridge.”
John would do the outside chores and help with inside duties as well, Christine said. He always wanted to know how the rest of the family was doing and when she took him to the nursing home to visit their parents, he would cry like a baby on the way home, she said. “John had a heart like no tomorrow.”
Christine said there are a lot of people in Syracuse who helped John in one way or another and she’d like to thank them.
“He was a permanent fixture on Teall Ave.,” Christine said. “There are many people who helped him over the years, who drove down that ramp and gave him money.”
He knew he was sick, she said, but he didn’t want to go to the doctor. Bobby Magee said the same thing. “I think he went to the shelter that night because he knew he was sick,” Bobby said.
Whether or not John Abel knew he was going to die is a question that can’t be answered. Christine had him cremated and John’s remains are staying at her house for now. Ironically, John’s friend Paul Harris is staying with Christine now, too.
“Paul Harris is living with us,” Christine said. “He was a true friend of Johnny’s. Even when John had nothing to give, he gave. He had nothing to give Paul but his knowledge of living on the street.”
Paul doesn’t share John’s desire to live out in the open. He’d prefer a roof over his head and the ability to pay his own way.
“It’s not a pleasant experience,” Paul said about being homeless. “I took John off the streets for a year but as soon as spring came, he was gone. John taught me that material things just aren’t important. If you had food, drink and some cigarettes, you could survive.”
Paul deals with the effects of his experience in Vietnam on a daily basis. He is bi-polar and needs medication and found life out on the street difficult.
“I would wind up in the VA hospital on the mental floor,” Paul said. “I’d stay 30 days and then when I got out, my landlord would have put all my stuff out in the street and I’d lose my place. That’s how I ended up homeless.”
Even though Bobby Magee said there isn’t anything anyone could give him that he couldn’t get on his own, he also said there are other homeless who do want help and who would like a more permanent home.
“There’s other people who want help but not me,” Bobby said. “The nature of being homeless always calls me back. If I had a home to go to, I’d still come back to the bridge just like Johnny.”
There is a group of people from St.James Parish in the valley neighborhood on Syracuse’s south side and Holy Cross Parish in DeWitt who are drawn to helping the homeless in Syracuse just as some of the homeless are drawn to their life on the street.
Father John Manno is pastor of St. James Church and he said for him, it keeps coming back to Matthew 25. “Ultimately, I feel that my desire to minister to the homeless is rooted in the Gospel of Matthew 25:35-36 — “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.“
He said he volunteered at soup kitchens while he was studying for the priesthood and his parents made sure he and his siblings understood the responsibility to help those in need.
“There is no question that in doing this ministry I have encountered Christ,” Father Manno said, “and these are moving, powerful encounters that keep me going back and asking myself, what more can I do? These things (concepts) were taught in the seminary and I learned that I have to put these teachings into practice and encourage others to do the same.”
Father Manno and the group of parishioners take to the streets and under the highway ramps with hot soup and coffee. They bring the homeless hats, gloves and new socks. When a bowl of soup is declined, they just keep asking if there is anything else that person needs. They look past the scruffy bearded faces and dirty clothes and see the person as a fellow human being, a brother or sister.
Sheila Austin, a St. James parishioner, walks the streets with Father Manno sometimes. They visit all the places they know of where the homeless hang out and where they stay for the night. They are always on the lookout for a place they haven’t discovered yet, for people they haven’t reached out to. This ministry has changed Sheila’s life. She is a nurse by vocation and now washes and patches up the feet of the homeless men who stay at the Oxford Street Inn.
Sheila said she used to be afraid of the homeless. She wrote an article for the Oxford Street Inn’s newsletter describing her life before she began her journey with the homeless.
“We had a membership to the YMCA downtown and I would go before or after work to exercise. Convenient, but one thing wrong…the ‘bums and hobos.’ They hung around Montgomery Street, near the soup kitchen and the door of the ‘Y.’ I was uncomfortable having to walk by, through or over them,” Sheila wrote. “I remember being afraid as their behavior was bizarre and unpredictable. I assumed they were from Hutchings Psychiatric Hospital, jail, or addicts and drunks living on the streets. I was indignant that they weren’t willing to find some work so they didn’t have to be there making me uncomfortable. Their clothes were dirty, smelly and their hair a snarly mess. Why did they have to be there?”
One day at the hospital where she worked, Sheila took care of a homeless man and it occurred to her that there may not be anyone who cared where this man was, that he had mud and dirt caked on the cracked bottoms of his feet.
So when Father Manno came to St. James Church in 2008 and asked what the parish was doing to bring Christ to the people in the south side neighborhood, Sheila began to rethink her experiences with the homeless. She has overcome her fear and now realizes the homeless she meets minster to her more than she to them. She can see the face of Christ in the people she meets and like Bobby Magee, Christine Delamater and Paul Hairris, she thinks of them as brothers.
Like Bobby Magee said, “If you want to know how to help the homeless, just ask them.”
John Abel knew how to take care of the homeless and he left behind more than one person who, in Bobby’s words, “Loved him like a brother.”