Big Tent

A version of the same story appears in the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an: Strangers appear at Abraham’s tent, and he welcomes them. “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree,” he tells them in one translation of the book of Genesis. “Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves…”

In the spirit of that story, New Haven-area churches and synagogues have been raising a metaphorical tent of their own every winter for nine years. Welcoming homeless strangers in need of that same hospitality, Abraham’s Tent is administered by Columbus House, a local organization that runs a 101-bed shelter on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and aims for “understanding and working toward overcoming the problems which cause people to become homeless,” its website says.

Abraham’s Tent houses 12 men, who this year will stay in the buildings of 14 different faith communities in greater New Haven, one week in each location, from mid-December to late March. Volunteers provide dinner, companionship, overnight security, breakfast and sometimes even bag lunches or gift cards to cover lunch out in the city. It engages about 700 volunteers annually, says Abraham’s Tent liaison and logistical coordinator Steve Peterson, himself a volunteer from North Haven Congregational Church. Over the years, about 30 local congregations have been involved.

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One recent Tuesday night, the men of Abraham’s Tent came in from the cold for dinner in the gathering hall of First Presbyterian Church New Haven on Whitney Avenue. Church volunteers had set round tables with cheerful tablecloths and pots of flowers. One long table was stocked with fruit and other snacks. Another held urns of coffee and hot water for tea. Several comfy sofas formed a U around a large TV broadcasting the news, and smaller side rooms held cots and the men’s belongings. Dinner was about to be served.

“It’s a huge relief knowing I have a warm bed in a very clean environment, where I don’t feel I have to protect myself and protect my belongings,” said a young man who preferred not to give his name. “It feels nice to get to meet different people every week, so it kind of opens up your social circle.”

Columbus House CEO Alison Cunningham and senior manager of outreach and engagement Lisbette De La Cruz estimate there are about 40 to 50 homeless people in need of emergency shelter on any given winter night in New Haven. According to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, last year’s annual one-night count identified 3,387 people in Connecticut experiencing homelessness—sheltered or unsheltered—including 736 children. Cunningham says that number has steadily been going down for the past three years due to “a big push to address the issue of chronic homelessness.” She’s hoping to see a continuing decline this year.

An outreach team run by De La Cruz is out every day looking for people who need help, providing services regardless of whether they come to the shelter. Case managers and the outreach team address not just housing issues but also a constellation of related problems including medical needs and employment. When a winter storm is expected, outreach is “intensive.” The city’s overflow shelter, also run by Columbus House, serves 75 men. Both men and women can stay in warming centers as well. But some people remain outside.

The overflow shelter isn’t ideal, said the young man who told his story. Doors open at 4 o’clock, but a bed is never guaranteed. “I’d show up at 2 sometimes because I know it’s a cold day [and] there’s a certain number of beds,” he explained. When the larger crowd shows up closer to 4, he said, there’s often a hassle, and people try to cut the line. “You kind of have to step out of character to let people know, ‘I need a bed as much as you do, bro.’… It’s not always nice waiting there for 2 hours, standing. You keep looking over your stuff, making sure no one is stealing.” One of the best things about Abraham’s Tent, he said, is a guaranteed spot. Instead of spending his time in a line, “I have a little more time to accomplish something.”

Homelessness, he said, was not something he ever imagined would happen to him. At 21, he was working two jobs and going to school part-time. He had his own apartment and was paying his own bills. Looking back, he can see the things that contributed to his downward slide: alcohol, depression, a breakup that he couldn’t get over. Being homeless is “not something that I think anyone at the core truly chooses,” he said, “but once they’re in it, it’s not as easy to get out of it as it seems… A lot of who you are stays behind in the good parts of [your] life.”

Abraham’s Tent aims to give men like him an opportunity to get back to those better times and into a place of their own. The program was started in 2008 when Columbus House feared it would lose city funding for its overflow shelter. The organization undertook a big fundraising campaign, Cunningham says. “But at the same time, we thought we better start planning for some alternative.” Interfaith Cooperative Ministries, a now-disbanded coalition of religious institutions, had helped to start Columbus House; she called them again. “It was an amazing moment, that they all came together and were willing to do that.”

Now, most Abraham’s Tent volunteers come back year after year, Peterson says. “Because it’s a weeklong engagement, they get to know these men, they can put names and faces to homelessness… I think most of these people think their lives have been changed by being involved.”

Cunningham says everyone can pitch in to make a difference; Columbus House always needs volunteers and donations. A question she frequently hears has to do with panhandling and how to respond. “There’s no easy answer to that—it’s people’s conscience,” she says. “If you feel like giving the guy a buck, give the guy a buck. But don’t judge the guy for what he’s going to do with that money… Give the gift freely and walk on.”

In other words, if you choose to give, be like Abraham.

Columbus House
586 Ella T Grasso Blvd, New Haven (map)
(203) 401-4400

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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