Homeless Shelter and Classical Chorus Converge

By Lydia Gans
Tuesday February 21, 2012 - 08:26:00 PM

"It was a dark and stormy night ...” some of us may remember those words from when we were kids sitting around a campfire shivering in anticipation of a scary story. On a recent dark and stormy Monday night two very different stories were taking place at First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

Inside the church assembly hall some 200 singers of the Berkeley Community chorus and Orchestra (BCCO) were rehearsing the dramatic Requiem Mass of Antonin Dvorak in preparation for their spring concert. At 10 o'clock director Ming Luke ended the rehearsal and everyone hustled to stack the chairs and move risers and piano into the far end of the room. The exhausted but inspired singers closed their music books and headed for their homes.

Outside on the dark street a large group of homeless people were gathered with their meager possessions waiting to to be sheltered inside. The music rehearsal venue was turned into an emergency storm shelter for the homeless. Word had been sent out that the shelter would be set up because cold and rainy weather was expected. It is not a regular homeless shelter. There is only enough money to operate it about 35 nights out of the year in extremely inclement weather. Funding comes almost entirely from the city of Berkeley with some additional support from Dorothy Day House which operates the shelter. 

J.C. Orton runs the shelter. Fifteen minutes before it opens he hands out tickets. The space can only accommodate 50 people. On this night 10 people had to be turned away. There is no place for those ten who were turned away from this shelter of last resort. 

By about 10:30 everyone is settled inside. The people sleep on foam covered mats on the floor. “Don't have to worry about bed bugs” J.C. explains. Everyone is provided with clean sheets. It is warm enough so that the sheet is sufficient. On the first four or five nights that the shelter operates Orton also gives out sleeping bags to anyone who might need one. “(T)hen if we're not open the next night they get to take the sleeping bag with them which allows them the effects of the shelter to extend beyond the shelter itself. They come to the shelter without a bag, they leave with a bag. It's like an added bonus.” For the next 8 hours these 50 homeless people could rest comfortably with a roof over their head. but by 6:15 in the morning everyone had to be out so the place could be cleaned and everything cleared away by 7 o'clock. First Congregational Church has been providing the shelter space for the 2 years free of charge. St. Marks Episcopal was home to the storm shelter for last 7 years prior to that, also without charge. 

Dorothy Day House employs J.C. to run the shelter. He is usually there when it opens, often with snacks or, on some nights, with soup left over from the Catholic Worker serving at People's Park. There are ten people who act as shelter operators, actually spending the nights on the premises. They are people who themselves are homeless or have experienced homelessness. 

J.C. keeps data on the characteristics of the shelter population. There generally are about four times as many men as women. There are eight or ten veterans who show up regularly. As for age distribution, 5% are 18 to 25, 65% are 25 to 55, and 28% are over 55. Over the years the aging of the baby boomer generation is showing up in an increasing proportion of older homeless people coming in. 

Expressing his feelings about the shelter, J.C. says, “I think it's a fantastic situation where we're able to take 50 people a night for somewhere up to 40 nights or 2000 people- nights and take these people not just a matter of giving them a cookie or a blanket or a hearty handshake or wishing them the best but taking the responsibility for 8 to 12 hours on all those nights - taking a personal responsibility for them. And the satisfaction of being able to give that depth of service to my mind's eye is overwhelming.”