January 10, 2020

‘We have to do something’: Tragedy inspires a community to join forces to take care of ‘the least of them’

As part of the approach of the Men’s Warming Shelter of Bedford, Father Richard Eldred, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Bedford and director Jennifer Richason help homeless men develop a plan to reach self-sufficiency. (Submitted photo)

As part of the approach of the Men’s Warming Shelter of Bedford, Father Richard Eldred, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Bedford and director Jennifer Richason help homeless men develop a plan to reach self-sufficiency. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

A tragedy can haunt us, making us wonder how someone can die like that in today’s world.

A tragedy can also motivate us, driving us to do everything we can so that it never happens again.

Father Richard Eldred had both those reactions when a homeless man was found dead in an alley in the southern Indiana community of Bedford after a frigid night.

“My initial reaction was we have to do something,” recalls Father Eldred, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Bedford. “With faith in God, we started to put things together as a community to make sure this didn’t happen again.”

It’s the beginning of a story of how the local churches and the city administration of Bedford have joined together to create a warm and welcoming center for homeless men to escape the cold and the elements from November through April—a natural complement to Becky’s Place, the homeless shelter for women and children that was already established in Bedford by Catholic Charities in the archdiocese.

It’s also the story of how that ecumenical effort connects the different faith communities in an inspiring way, seven years after the death of the homeless man in an alley.

‘We’re going to treat each other as Christians should’

Shortly after learning of the man’s death, Father Eldred was determined to involve his parish in finding a way to create a shelter for homeless men in the city. He joined forces with Capt. Donna Rose of the local Salvation Army at the time, which offered to provide its facility as a shelter from January through March of that first year.

“It was open from five in the evening to eight in the morning,” the pastor said, noting that members of St. Vincent de Paul Parish were its main volunteers. “We would provide dinner, a shower, laundry, breakfast and a sack lunch, plus tokens for the bus system so they could get around. That first year, we had about four or five men there a night.”

Called the Men’s Warming Shelter of Bedford, the site has expanded its support every year, even after the Salvation Army left the city a few years ago.

Last year, the shelter served about 45 men during the four months it was open, averaging 13 men staying there a night. This year, the shelter opened on Nov. 1 and will close on April 30—a six-month stretch that is being led by its director, Jennifer Richason.

“The reason that people are in a shelter is because they’re down and broken, and they’ve lost all their relationships around them,” Richason says. “We take them as they are. When they come to us, we’re only thinking, ‘How can we help them?’ Everything else falls away. We’re not judging them. From there, we start moving them toward self-sufficiency.”

That includes helping them get insurance and identification cards, aiding them in recovery efforts from alcohol addiction, and assisting them in applying for jobs and finding housing—all in the hope of getting the men “back into society,” she says.

“The importance of self-sufficiency is a reflection of the shelter, of the things that happen when you have people around who are there for you,” Richason says. “And this town is full of really good-hearted people who want to help.”

That good-heartedness has reached another level in the community as different churches have come together to support the shelter.

“We have a dozen or more churches helping us,” says Richason, a member of Tabernacle of Praise. “People are laying down their denominations, and it’s powerful. There’s the feeling that we’re going to treat each other as Christians should. I feel like we’re saying, ‘We’re going to take care of our own. These people are here, and they need our help.’ This community has chosen to do something about it.”

That insight was echoed by Pastor Bruce Ervin of First Christian Church in Bedford.

“Though we may differ theologically, we all recognize Jesus’ call to reach out and care for the marginalized in our society. We would much rather join hands in that ministry of hospitality than stay separate. It says as well that Bedford is a warm-hearted, caring place, with the churches and the community alike committed to this.”

‘You could see the hand of God in everything’

The great blessing of that inter-church cooperation shined through last September when the churches joined together for the first major fundraiser for the shelter.

“It was called ‘Spaghetti on the Square,’ ” says Father Eldred, who is also pastor of St. Mary Parish in Mitchell. “We lined up tables right down the middle of the street, right in front of the courthouse downtown. It was from 4 to 9 o’clock on a Saturday. We served about 500 meals, and we had a silent auction, a bake sale and a cornhole contest. Church musicians performed, and local businesses were sponsors.

“One church did the spaghetti, another the salad and another the breadsticks, but you could not tell who belonged to one congregation. We were just a community taking care of ‘the least of them,’ like they say in Scripture. All during the preparation, you could see the hand of God in everything. When it was all done, we raised $17,000—100 percent profit. That helps for the payroll.”

It also helps that the city bought the old Salvation Army facility and leases it to the shelter for $1 a month. The city also pays the utilities for the building.

“There’s also Bertha’s Mission, a soup kitchen where the homeless can get a meal at lunchtime,” Father Eldred says. “It’s sponsored by the people of the community and the businesses. And a lot of people are bringing us socks, underwear, clothing, jackets, gloves, hats and sweatpants. It’s really a community effort.”

‘I’m contributing to something worthwhile’

The momentum from that cooperation has continued as many of the local churches are providing volunteers to help at the shelter for the first time. Different churches take a day a week, staffing the shelter with volunteers to cook for the men and interact with them from 5 p.m. to

10 p.m. After that, an employee stays there through the night and until nine in the morning.

Greg Stanley coordinates the volunteers from St. Vincent de Paul Parish for Wednesday evenings—a change from all the previous years when he took charge of enlisting volunteers for all seven days. He has witnessed the difference the center has made in the lives of the homeless men.

“I’ve gotten to know the men. Some of the guys have climbed out of their situations and gotten jobs and housing. So that’s been a good feeling,” says Stanley. “We had one gentleman with us for several years. He had been homeless for 10 years, and he got into an apartment of his own. He’s off the street. I feel I’m contributing to something worthwhile here.”

Amid all the stories of togetherness, compassion and hope, Father Eldred still often thinks of the homeless man who died in an alley on a winter night.

“He did not die in vain,” Father Eldred says. “He’s moved an entire community to use their time, talent and treasure to make a difference in a true Christian way.” †

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