Sunday Spotlight: non-profit Brewster Cares serves locals experiencing homelessness
MJ has just finished cleaning the bathrooms at the small building on North Main Street in Brewster. She’s tired, and she hasn’t been sleeping well. At night her mind races. She relies on prayer and medication, but they’re not enough.
She starts getting ready to leave; it’s almost 2:30 PM, and the building will close soon. Six hours from now, she will be back. The temperature is below freezing, and MJ will need a warm bed to sleep in.
Around 8:30 PM, MJ and a handful of other people return to the building on North Main Street. The group is bundled in worn jackets, breaths fogging the cold night air. The volunteers arrive to take everyone’s temperature and commence a brief check-in period. Everyone receives a package of warm socks and a fresh mask. Together, the group walks up the hill to St. Lawrence O’Toole, the big stone Catholic church that looms over Prospect Street. It’s not an easy walk after being out in the cold for several hours with few places to sit. But the walk is worth it; for this night and many nights this winter, a church meeting room will be their temporary home. MJ and the group are homeless.
There are an estimated half a million people in the United States experiencing homelessness on a given night, according to a 2017 Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report. HUD estimated that 92,000 people in New York State are experiencing homelessness. Those figures have only climbed since the pandemic. Our area is not immune to the crisis, though it’s easier to imagine that homelessness happens elsewhere, to other people whose paths we are not likely to cross.
Last year, St. Lawrence O’Toole established Brewster Cares, a non-profit organization that provides care to those in need, including basic social services for people who are experiencing homelessness. From December through March, the group runs a daytime warming center in Brewster and an overnight emergency shelter, which alternates locations each week among St. Lawrence O’Toole, Holy Trinity church in Brewster and Sacred Heart church in nearby Patterson. This year, the program serves anywhere from three to sixteen people each day, many of them regulars.
At the warming center, visitors can get a cup of coffee or a meal, rest, and meet with social workers from the Department of Social Services. MJ, 54, who suffers from asthma, COPD and mental health issues, says she has spent years working with social workers to try to secure disability benefits and Section 8 housing, a state-run program for low-income housing. While she is on a waiting list for housing, there are several hundred people ahead of her. “The gears are moving too slow,” she said.
Without a permanent place to live, MJ doesn’t feel she can interview for jobs, let alone sustain meaningful employment. Of the three churches that offer emergency shelter, only one, St. Lawrence, has showers or laundry machines. “It’s been a struggle the past two weeks trying to stay clean. People think we’re lazy, but we’re just stuck,” she said.
On any given day, somewhere between five and fifteen people arrive at a Brewster Cares facility. They could be individuals or families who have been displaced. Gregory Ashe, 24, who works as the warming center supervisor, said that most people who use Brewster Cares’ services are seeking housing assistance. Nearly all have been without a permanent home for at least three years, some for much more than that. According to Ashe, all of the people that the center serves say that they have been waiting for government services to help them for a very long time.
“I feel like we’re being thrown away,” said MJ, a Brewster High School graduate. “I raised a family. I took care of my parents. We all worked,” she said, gesturing around the warming center at the men and women who were seated on chairs and couches around the building. “Everybody was somebody before we came here.”
Wilfredo Cuascut, a St. Lawrence parishioner and Brewster resident, was hired as operations manager for the shelter and warming center last year. “Interacting with these people every day, you realize that they’re human,” he said. “They’re mothers, fathers. Somewhere along the line, something happened; they broke down. It could have been the stress of life, a death, and unfortunately it spiraled out of control.”
Cuascut, who is at the shelter seven nights a week, said his priority is to connect with whoever comes through the doors. “There are so many people who don’t get a second chance, or even a first chance - a mentor, someone who really cares and could provide support,” he said. “My goal is to make them feel important.”
A majority of the shelter’s funding comes from community donations. Father Richard Gill of St. Lawrence O’Toole says local rotary clubs have been very generous, as have his own parishioners. The church has been helping Brewster Cares to apply for grants through charitable foundations. Brewster Cares’ website offers ways to make monetary donations as well as to sign up for volunteer slots to either cook or serve food during the day or at the overnight shelter.
Each night, volunteers meet at the hosting church with donated food and begin preparations to serve that night’s guests. The food could be homemade ziti, fit to feed a dozen, a tray of brownies, or catering from a local restaurant. At St. Lawrence they can browse the clothing donation closet, take a hot shower, and wash their clothes in the washer/dryer machines. Lights are out by 10:30. By 6AM the next morning, guests can grab a light breakfast before they head back out in the world to face another day.
Cuascut, who took on the operations manager role on top of his full-time day job, feels like he has found his calling. “Having such a crazy 2020 put a lot of things into perspective: your home, your family, how lucky we are to work. We take a lot of things for granted – a plate of food, heat, shelter. This could be anyone.”
Despite her struggles, MJ still has hope. She dreams of going back to school. She thought about being a veterinary technician. She’s also interested in social work, but she doesn’t know if she could go through with it. “I would be frustrated if I couldn’t help anybody,” she said.
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