By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
It’s the time of year when a familiar scene starts popping up in churches and homes: the infant Jesus, snug in a manger, flanked by proud parents Mary and Joseph and perhaps some curious livestock. That nativity scene comes from the Gospel of Luke, which recounts that Jesus was laid in a manger because “there was no room for them at the inn” (Lk 2:7). That manger might have been an unorthodox lodging solution, but it became a place of comfort and refuge, a site where something beautiful happened.
A similar story unfolded in Syracuse not too long ago.
At 5:30 in the evening on Oct. 20, the phone rang at the offices of Catholic Charities of Onondaga County. Steven Morgan, executive deputy commissioner of the Onondaga County Department of Social Services (DSS) was on the other end.
Morgan explained to Mike Melara, executive director of Catholic Charities, that there was a potential problem on the horizon for some families accessing emergency shelter through DSS. These families were staying in motels around Syracuse, a short-term solution DSS provides to help people avoid homelessness when the beds at traditional shelters are full. But with both Family Weekend at Syracuse University and the SU-West Virginia University football game kicking off the following day, the motels were overbooked and in a bind. The families needed to leave by the following evening to allow the motels to accommodate their scheduled guests for the weekend.
DSS reached out to area agencies that provide services to the homeless, but they, too, were booked or unable to coordinate accommodations on 24 hours’ notice. Luckily, Melara and the Catholic Charities staff had just the solution — and the ability to pull it off in time.
“We’re a large organization, but we’re nimble,” Melara said. “We have the ability to respond to difficult situations at a moment’s notice. We see it as a challenge and we’re motivated to solve the problem.”
Catholic Charities offered to convert Vincent House, their neighborhood center on Syracuse’s west side, into temporary living quarters for the weekend. Vincent House provides after-school programs for children and teens during the week, and the building features a kitchen, gym, library, classrooms and a recreation area. With some fast tweaking, it would house the families nicely.
With the location set, a meeting was held early Friday morning to hammer out the finer details. Liz Perry, program manager at Catholic Charities’ Dorothy Day House in Syracuse, was part of the planning team.
“My work at the shelter gave me some insight on the details” that would go into making the weekend a success, she said.
She and Catholic Charities staff members from every department pitched in to decide and execute on staffing schedules and security measures, coordinate logistics and come up with creative solutions for providing essential but easily-overlooked needs, like bathing facilities. (Hand towels would be available for freshening up, and vans would take guests to the Oxford Street Inn during the day, when the facility was closed, to use the shelter’s showers.)
By 5 p.m. that evening, the Catholic Charities leadership team had set up beds in the gym and recreation room at Vincent House — Red Cross cots topped with blankets and pillows from Hillbrook Juvenile Detention Center, all secured through DSS — and the first guests were welcomed.
That weekend, 23 women and children called the house on Seymour Street home. Seventeen Catholic Charities staff members worked at the house in shifts throughout the weekend, providing meals, supervising activities for the children and keeping the house staffed 24 hours a day. Security was also posted at the house to ensure the safety of the residents.
Perry worked an 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. shift, during which she helped clean up dinner and checked the roster at curfew to “make sure everyone was in and safe,” she said.
Despite the speed with which the plan was put into motion, there weren’t any problems to speak of that weekend.
“Everything ran so smoothly,” Perry said. “Everyone worked together so well.”
On Monday morning, DSS staff met with guests to assist them with temporary or permanent housing. Morgan said the feedback DSS received from the families about the weekend was generally positive.
“They said they felt they were treated with respect and that they appreciated the opportunity to be with other families,” he said.
Melara, too, heard that families were “very happy” with the arrangement, which in turn made him and his staff very happy.
“It was a humbling experience for all of us,” he said. “We’re pleased that we were able to effectively respond to this urgent need.”
For more information about Catholic Charities of Onondaga County’s work to provide care and advocacy for children and families, the homeless, at-risk youth, refugees, those in need of emergency assistance, the elderly and those with developmental disabilities, visit www.ccoc.us.