Boston church's program gives teens a crash course in homelessness from those who know it best
As part of the CityReach program in downtown Boston, teenagers prepare sandwiches for people who are homeless. Photos courtesy of CityReach
Flipping the script on who gets to tell the story of the disenfranchised, common cathedral's CityReach program empowers people who have experienced homelessness to serve as trusted experts on life without shelter.
Editor’s note: CityReach in Boston is one of four organizations recently honored with the Traditioned Innovation Award from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. The following is the third in an occasional series of articles about the award winners.
On a cold Friday night in January, Benny Bernard, 34, was leading one of Boston’s most unusual tours -- a homeless person’s view of the city -- when an unplanned situation put his expertise on display.
Outside a downtown shelter, his tour group of teens and parents from suburban churches caught the eye of a wide-smiling, happy-drunk man in a bright red shirt, black trenchcoat and matching cowboy hat.
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners receive $10,000 to continue their work.
“Hey, y’all!” the man said, moving closer to the apprehensive suburbanites. “Alabama Slammer! I love you guys.”
Bernard deftly defused the awkwardness, greeting the man and wrapping him in a hug.
“Alabama Slammer!” Bernard replied, holding the hug and gesturing to the group to keep moving. “Don’t worry; he’s a staple in the community. All right, keep walking. He’s just one of the guys trying to get it right at the end of the day.”
As someone who’s been without housing much of his adult life, Bernard knows the value of showing love and respect to people who often feel disdained, ignored or invisible. His tour is part of CityReach, a 21-year-old program that empowers those who’ve experienced chronic homelessness to serve as trusted experts on life without shelter.
CityReach is a project of common cathedral, an outdoor church that brings homeless and housed people together for worship on Boston Common every Sunday. In the CityReach program, held nine times each year, youth ages 14 and up come to one of two downtown Boston churches for an overnight, 20-hour crash course in homelessness. It’s led by those who’ve experienced homelessness, along with two common cathedral clergy, the Revs. Mary Jane Eaton and Laura Shatzer.
The program’s innovative approach, experts say, is part of a growing trend in social service circles that views people who are homeless not just as recipients of programming but as valued contributors. Even if they lack shelter and tidy lives, people can benefit from opportunities to share their stories and donate time.
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But CityReach takes that approach a step further, rethinking the nature of expertise and flipping the script on who gets to tell the story of the disenfranchised when the well-off and the destitute come together. At CityReach, people who are homeless are seen as the experts, with valuable insights to offer.
‘Something that’s new’
And that is something that Carole Zugazaga has never seen in her years of studying homeless programming across the country.
“That’s really something that’s new,” said Zugazaga, a professor of social work and the chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.
Zugazaga sees CityReach as a promising model, one that could be replicated elsewhere, especially in large cities where support for social services is strong and congregations may see the value of such programs for their youth.
Getting to know real people who are homeless can change a young person’s life, she said. And for homeless people who embrace the responsibility, a staff position with CityReach could potentially be a steppingstone to a more stable life with housing.
“Where the homeless are seen as being experts, able to contribute to this process and program, … that would give them some confidence and increase their self-esteem,” Zugazaga said. “It would help them think, ‘Maybe there is something I can do. Maybe my situation is not hopeless.’”
CityReach has proved both economically sustainable and increasingly popular ever since it was founded in 1996, when 100 youth took part, said Amanda Grant-Rose, the executive director of common cathedral. Two Boston congregations, Church on the Hill and the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Paul, take turns donating space as hosts. Fees of $70 per participant cover the program’s expenses, which include, for each staffer with homeless experience, a $40 stipend, meals, a place to sleep indoors for a night and a Dunkin’ Donuts gift card.
Since 2014, youth participation has surged by more than 100 per year, Grant-Rose said. Last year, some 600 kids from about 50 area churches took part, including many from youth programs that send participants every year. And the program has plenty of room to grow, she said.
Just as Zugazaga said, the experience can be life-changing for young people.
“This is profoundly impactful for the students,” said Julie Bosworth, a volunteer who accompanied the youth group from First Church in Pembroke, Massachusetts, on that recent January night.
After taking part in CityReach a few years ago, Bosworth’s daughter led a coffee shop gift-card drive to help Boston’s homeless gain access to bathrooms. Now in college, she’s studying how technology might lead to better sanitation for homeless communities.
What changes kids is hearing the stories, Bosworth said.
“They assume someone started out as an orphan and now they’re homeless, but then they see it can happen to anyone,” Bosworth said. “The biggest takeaway message is that no one plans to become homeless.”
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Today’s CityReach is the result of more than 20 years of ministry, building trust with a homeless community that might otherwise be more guarded and suspicious. The program also depends on a support network of congregations that provide everything from youth group participants to in-kind donations.
Still, bringing together homeless and housed people for an intensive experience has its challenges. Some of that is intentional. CityReach purposely disrupts the expectations of the teen participants -- especially those from churches that aspire to be hospitable communities yet haven’t changed their worship to make newcomers more comfortable.
“Many congregations are happy to have people come as guests but are unwilling to allow others to play the role of host,” said Adam Hearlson, an assistant professor at Andover Newton Theological School and a member of common cathedral’s board of directors. CityReach, though, turns that upside down.
“CityReach gets them to recognize that this person who’s unhoused or formerly unhoused is their neighbor and has something to teach them about the world,” Hearlson said. “It reverses the roles. Now the housed churches have to be the guests. It empowers the unhoused to be the hosts.”
An intense 20 hours
For that recent January session, CityReach began on Friday evening as cars started double-parking outside Church on the Hill, a Swedenborgian congregation located steps from the Massachusetts State House. The teens and parents unloaded not only sleeping bags and other gear for the night but also dozens of garbage bags filled with donated clothing. Soon, the haul was piled so high in the sanctuary that the altar was hidden from view. Only the top of a Celtic cross peeked out from behind the heap.
After they settled in, the kids began an intense 20 hours. Over that time, they would listen to 16 staffers talk about becoming homeless, tour the neighborhood with homeless guides and worship briefly on the Common before returning for a few hours of sleep on carpeted church floors. The next morning, they’d help the program guides distribute clothing to 150 guests who’d come in off the streets. Then they’d debrief in small groups and engage in clergy-led theological reflection before going home to some of Boston’s most affluent suburbs.
On Friday evening, about 90 kids and two dozen parents sat in a circle on folding chairs and clapped as the staffers, one by one, came forward and shared their stories.
“I’m a good person, but I’m also a criminal,” said Garrett, the first one up.
Tall and affable, Garrett -- who, like most of the staff, used only his first name -- had served 18 months in prison for stabbing a roommate who’d thrown hot cooking oil on him during an argument. After prison, his mother had died, he had become addicted to cocaine and he’d ended up homeless.
But things are looking up, he said. He’s been off drugs for five years now and has earned a GED diploma along the way. The group applauded his success.
Another staffer, Rufus, told how he’d lost his home in a fire and never recovered. The same thing had happened to Alex, who recognized some of the parent chaperones that night from his earlier life as a Boston professional. Roberto, a carnival game operator who lives beneath a Ferris wheel in warm months, sat on the floor to show what it feels like to be a person without shelter.
James gave no details about his background but agreed that being homeless is hard.
“It feels like someone is always looking down on you,” he said. “You try to speak to someone and you’re ignored. They don’t realize that you are a person. You do have feelings, and it hurts a lot of the time when people ignore you, or they’re afraid of you.”
The audience of teens was intensely focused, absorbed in each person’s story.
One teen, Josh Crocker, said he found the stories particularly moving. Essentially tales of stability slipping away, they resonated with what he knows about his early childhood in Guatemala, where he was given up for adoption after his father walked out. Listening to Boston’s homeless, he kept thinking of the situation he’d left as a small child.
“I feel grateful because I was able to get out of it, but I feel guilty because I left it,” Crocker said. “I’m no different from anybody else here. So I sort of feel guilty that I got out of it and they’re still living it.”
For virtually all the teens, City Reach was an eye-opener. At the end of the program, in the wrap-up session, feelings were raw as the teens processed what they’d experienced over the previous 20 hours.
Allie Stallings, a seventh-grader from Church of Christ, Congregational, in Millis, Massachusetts, shared with the group how it felt to eat lunch with a homeless person not much older than she is.
“I was sitting down to eat my sandwich, and I was sitting with a girl who was pregnant,” Stallings said. “We offered her a sandwich, and she said, ‘I wish I could have more. I’m so hungry.’ She would sigh and say, ‘I’m hungry,’ and I just wished I could give her more food. It was so hard.”
Keys to CityReach success
CityReach works, organizers said, in part because the homeless staff is well-screened. Anyone on a sex-offender registry is ineligible. Candidates with histories of crime or substance abuse can be considered as long as they’re able to meet the program’s expectations. Everyone signs a contract pledging to take leadership, follow directions and be sober during the program.
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As extra safeguards, kids are never left alone with the homeless staffers; parents and chaperones are always present. And CityReach doesn’t penalize staffers if they can’t stick with the schedule.
“Sometimes people have come and said, ‘I signed up to be on staff and I can’t do it this weekend. It’s just too hard right now,’” Grant-Rose said. “That’s OK. Come another time. They can’t stay, but they can try again another time.”
A core group of willing and invested staffers has also been essential to CityReach’s success. The program has about 50 people in its stable of staff members who have been homeless, including some who are now housed. They participate for various reasons: camaraderie, a night indoors (homeless staffers sleep in a room separate from the youth groups) and a chance to give back to common cathedral.
Another key to CityReach’s success is that the program originated with homeless people, said the Rev. Mary Jane Eaton, the associate pastor at common cathedral and leader of Friday night’s CityReach activities.
“This is an idea that came from people who live outside,” she said. “This is not an idea that people with houses thought up, like, ‘Oh, let’s do this program and have it be led by folks that live out on the streets.’ At common cathedral, the programs that succeed are the programs that chronically homeless people come up with.”
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Being able to make a positive difference is a big motivator. Tommy, 54, who was addicted to heroin for years and served time in prison, said his main goal that weekend was to convince kids to never let homelessness happen to them.
Tommy also gets to advise other homeless people, when they come in for clothing, on how to survive the Boston winters. He likes being appreciated for what he knows.
“It’s like being a boss for once,” he said.
Ken, who lost his housing in the throes of substance abuse, takes pride in personalizing the CityReach experience. Like all the staff, he attended a training retreat and shadowed a veteran of the program, but he thought the tour could be more personal. He takes his groups to see where he sleeps -- an entryway by a “dead door” that no one ever uses. And sometimes, he demonstrates how a person living on the streets might collect cardboard and fold it in a backpack and under blankets to make a bed.
“I just felt that was deeper and closer to the homeless person than [a tour that says], ‘This is St. Francis -- they serve meals,’” he said.
But even with the benefits, the program can be draining for the staff. Opening one’s life to examination can be difficult; the personal questions, trying. Being a CityReach staff guide requires patience and stamina, which can be hard to muster when every day is about surviving on the streets.
When the 20 hours are over, everyone needs a day off.
In the recent weekend’s staff debriefing, after the kids had left, a question surfaced twice from the homeless staffers: Can we leave now?
After a few more minutes of discussion, Shatzer thanked the staff for their work and sent them on their way, back to Boston’s streets with their overfilled bags and rolling steel carts. The next day, many would be at worship at common cathedral. And in a few weeks, in late March, they or others will return for another round of CityReach.