By Joyce M. Miles
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — Local ministers joined forces Tuesday to shine light on a hard-to-see problem in the community.
Eric Johns, pastor of the Buffalo Dream Center, and Craig Campbell, newly appointed lead pastor of Faith Tabernacle Church, spent the night talking and praying with homeless folks and volunteers at Lockport CARES on Genesee Street.
These Lockport High School graduates are on a mission to raise public awareness of homelessness in eastern Niagara County.
The mission seems necessary in part because most homeless here don’t fit the stereotypical profile — older male, troubled by mental health and/or substance abuse issues, living in a cardboard box or under a bridge. The lack of visible proof of a problem leads people to assume we don’t have one.
The numbers, and the anecdotes, say otherwise.
Homeless are “everywhere ... in Buffalo, the suburbs and other communities,” Johns said.
“Housing is a big need,” said Campbell, whose church is a supporter of Lockport CARES.
The Lockport Community Action Response Emergency Shelter, a non-profit enterprise forged by several dozen area churches and service agencies three years ago, has temporarily housed 226 people since January, 22 people in the month of October alone.
They’re men, women and children, very often young adults, who couldn’t make a rent payment, or lost their housing to condemnation, according to shelter director Marty Nagy.
The homeless by definition are people who don’t have a permanent address. In communities of all sizes and types — urban, suburban and rural — they often bounce from relative’s home to friend’s home, back and forth, sleeping where they can until their welcome is worn. The lack of a permanent residence can make it tough to hold down a job, go to school, even to receive social services.
So observes Johns, a former Faith Tabernacle staff member who’s been ministering in Buffalo’s inner city the past 19 years.
Every year since 1999, Johns has “become” homeless during Thanksgiving week, leaving his house and family to eat in soup kitchens, sleep in shelters and out on the streets for five to six days.
He invites media attention to the effort and hopes he’s opening eyes — and hearts — to the plight of people who struggle for the basics in life.
While shining a light on homelessness, Johns also is campaigning for donations to the Boxes of Love ministry, a Christmas gift-giving effort for area poor with centers in Buffalo, Amherst, North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls.
In 1999, Johns’ church made up five boxes for five families, containing the makings of a Christmas meal and wrapped gifts for children. Fourteen seasons later, Boxes has grown into a network enterprise of churches, charitable organizations, social and business centers, and over 1,000 volunteers, who raise, assemble and distribute Christmas boxes to 3,000 families, and gifts for 5,000 children, in Erie and Niagara counties.
“Over 14 years, the need is definitely greater every year,” Johns said. “More parents don’t know what they’ll do for Christmas.”
Johns sees the need up close in the course of his pastoral work. A few years ago, he said, he encountered some of his own church members at a Buffalo soup kitchen, a family with working parents who, together, didn’t make enough money to cover all the basics. The family supped at the soup kitchen three times a week out of necessity.
More recently, he’s pleased to note that one Buffalo Dream Center member has taken in another, a homeless teen who had been abandoned by his mother, then cast out by his grandmother for refusing to register for welfare. The teen had a college aid package that he couldn’t spend if he was getting welfare, Johns said; after leaving his grandma’s home he bounced around from one acquaintance’s home to another for about a year before he landed a permanent residence. Now the young man is in a place where he can do more than just dream about his betterment.
Johns’ outreaches are guided by belief that human give-and-take can help change lives.
“I have seen transformations in people with whom I’ve built personal relationships,” he said. “Changing a life, one life at a time, is the mission of the Buffalo Dream Center.”
Johns does not foray into the homeless world unescorted, admitting the memory of his first night out, “huddled in a sleeping bag under a bridge, terrified,” is still fresh after 14 years. His campaign team includes five other men:
• Pat Fleming, pastor of Amherst Church of the Nazarene, who’s been spending Thanksgiving week homeless with Johns the past 11 years.
• Anthony Spector, Johns’ dad, a city of Lockport resident who’s escorted his son for several days each Thanksgiving week for over 10 years.
• Wayne Brubaker of Appleton, Johns’ uncle, is a “first-timer” to the campaign and, for the past six years, Santa Claus at several Boxes of Love distribution sites in Buffalo.
• Ben Tagg of Buffalo, director of the STEPS Ministry Center in that city, who joined the team last year and also spends the whole week homeless.
• Craig Campbell, pastor of Faith Tabernacle Church on Beattie Avenue and another first-timer on the team. Campbell, who was a pre-K student in Eric Johns’ religious education class at Faith Tabernacle 25 years ago, said he’s looking forward to rejoining the team next year, perhaps for more than one night. That’s not in the cards this year, since he should not be too far away from his pregnant wife, he said.
Living homeless is an eye-opener, even if it’s only for a few days, the team members said in an interview at the Lockport CARE shelter.
In the back of his mind, Brubaker already knew the myths or stereotypes of homeless are off base. Talking with folks in shelters and soup kitchens the past few days provided powerful reinforcement of the truth, he said.
“The homeless get a bad rap. They’re not all bums, not all derelicts,” he said. “They had something happen in life that they couldn’t cope with. ... Especially in this fragile economy, it can happen to anyone.”
Spector, Johns’ dad, said he hopes the team’s visit to Lockport makes the community more aware of CARES, its existence, services and needs. He confessed that, despite living only a few blocks from the shelter, he didn’t know anything about until it this week.
Johns will continue living homeless until Saturday, then return home to his wife Michelle and their five children, ages 8 to 18.
Michelle Johns, who recently returned from a three-week Christian education mission in Pakistan, is spending this week manning the phone at Buffalo Dream Center. Upon publicity of her husband’s campaign, it tends to ring incessantly as people call in their donations to Boxes of Love — or their requests for help.
Eric Johns says he’s hopeful his stay in Lockport will help “birth” a Boxes of Love site in the city, by a local church or community organization.
Important for potential organizers to know: Churches and groups in the network all work together on fund/donation raising and creating Boxes of Love. Everything that’s raised goes to a central site in Buffalo, where the Boxes are put together; site leaders arrange for the distribution of finished boxes. No church or group is “on its own” when it comes to aiding the needy, Johns said.
Anyone who wants to donate goods or labor to the Boxes of Love program can call the Buffalo Dream Center at 854-1001.
Lockport CARES recently acquired a second property on Genesee Street with the aim of turning it into “transitional” housing for single men, shelter director Marty Nagy said this week.
The shelter at 192 Genesee St. takes in homeless people for up to 10 days only; it’s designed as a place for people to hang their hat while they get enrolled for needed social services and/or locate new permanent housing.
Transitional housing would be open to qualified single males for up to a 2-year period.
Shelter auditing shows it’s single men who have the hardest time locating afforable, decent housing, according to Nagy. Single moms, and couples with minor children, have an easier time getting aid offers, she said.
Welfare for a single male, on the other hand, amounts to about $360 a month. That’s “hardly enough to get a room somewhere, and for that amount ... conditions can be deplorable,” Nagy said.
Johns’ visit to the CARE shelter is well-timed, considering the organization is launching a Christmastime fundraiser for the transitional housing project.
Hopefully “it will raise community awareness of the need for the shelter, and agencies to come forth and help,” Nagy said.