ON SUNDAY morning, Feb. 22, parishioners going to Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist found a surprise – for some, not a pleasant one.
To get inside the historic sanctuary on Lafayette Square, they had to first step over a dozen homeless people, sprawled out on the front steps in the shadows of the spires, huddled within cardboard boxes lined with blankets.
Homeless for a night, anyway. The campers were actually about a dozen members of the Catholic social services group JustFaith and guests, raising awareness of homelessness with the second annual “Box City” event.
“I don’t pretend that one night sleeping out puts me in touch with the reality of being homeless,” explains Sister Jackie Griffith, director of Social Services for the Savannah Catholic Diocese.
“It’s only an introduction to a way of life that we hope people will continue, to lead them spiritually and in compassion and solidarity,” she says. “We chose the Cathedral because it’s downtown, and we wanted to be under the spirals of the Cathedral while we know there are folks sleeping out in camps and underneath the bridge.”
While homelessness is a continuing issue in Savannah, the severe economic downturn has changed its complexion.
“When you think of a homeless person you think of an older unshaven guy,” says Robert Ludgate, a member of the local Unitarian Universalist Beloved Community who joined JustFaith members on the cathedral steps. “But things in the economy are now putting women and children in the same situation.”
For their sleepout, Justfaith picked the wintry February night for a reason. “If we did it during balmy spring weather it wouldn’t be much of a learning experience,” says Sister Jackie.
But it’s not only the weather itself that tells the tale. It’s learning about the extraordinary preparations the homeless must make just to provide the most basic shelter from the elements.
“You have to drag all this extra stuff with you,” says Sister Jackie. “It really gives you a sense of having to put your shelter together.”
Indeed, the lengths to which the homeless must go to stay warm in the winter can be shocking – even disturbing – after a closer look.
Michael Johnson, a parishioner at Sacred Heart who helped organize the Box City sleepouts, recounts his experience working with the homeless in Manhattan, near his former home of Croton–on–Hudson, N.Y.
He was doing what’s known as a “midnight run” –– providing food and drink as the homeless bed down.
“It was a real eye–opener,” Johnson remembers. “I was astounded at the nooks and crannies people would find to spend the night out on the street.”
This particular Manhattan night was frigid, “chin–shivering” cold, he says.
“I went over to a clear plastic bag full of newspapers, and didn’t see anybody, so I walked off. Someone said, ‘No, there’s somebody in there.’”
Sure enough, Johnson says, a homeless woman was inside the makeshift bundle — a plastic bag lined with newspapers as insulation.
“She had straws like snorkels sticking out of the bag, so she could breathe without suffocating,” he says in amazement. “When it’s really cold like that, once they get themselves settled in they won’t budge until morning comes.”
Johnson says while the percentage of homeless in New York is higher, Savannah is less insulated from the problem.
“Savannah has a very good network for the homeless, but it’s still incomplete,” he says. “When it’s really cold the shelters just do not have room.”
In addition to camping out on the steps, the Box City campers received “midnight runs” of their own.
“It’s a good opportunity for people who aren’t able to sleep out to help, for example if they’ve got children at home,” says Sister Jackie.
The scene on the steps at 11 p.m. that Saturday night was typical downtown Savannah: Partiers driving around, some yelling out at the “homeless.” Students on their bikes. CAT buses grinding out their routes.
“This is very different from camping,” says Johnson. “It’s amazing how noisy the city is when you’re sleeping on the street. You hear everything.”
The Box City event actually culminated the next morning, when the tenters walked inside for Mass.
After Mass, they walked to the Social Apostolate, where Sister Pauline O’Brien fed them breakfast and led discussion on what they’d learned, adding in her own experience from years of serving the disadvantaged.
“The idea is to go to Mass and nourish our spirit, and then go to the Social Apostolate and nourish our bodies,” says Sister Jackie.
For Robert Ludgate, the whole experience bordered on the profound.
“I thought about things I never really questioned, like someone digging in a dumpster for food, or passed out on a bench. Why are they where they are? What led them to be there?” he asks.
“Substance abuse and mental health issues may be part of it. But part of it is a lack of compassion on our part. We just don’t see them.”
Ludgate says in the middle of the night a young couple walked up the steps, sat down near the sleeping tenters – and rolled a fat joint.
“They sat on the steps and smoked that one, and then rolled another one,” Ludgate laughs. “Not one time did they acknowledge us in any way. They felt safe that they could ignore us.”
It was harder for churchgoers to ignore the tenters, however.
“It was almost funny,” Ludgate remembers. “The next morning so many didn’t come up the front steps at all – they came up the stairs on the side so they wouldn’t have to walk amidst us.”
Ludgate says – with some sadness – that the vast majority of parishioners ignored them, with a few exceptions.
“One couple did make eye contact, and said, ‘Good morning, God bless you,’ and I responded the same way,” he says. “Then an older couple came by. The woman walked up and said, ‘I presume you’re out here to bring attention to the homeless?’”
When Ludgate said yes, the woman replied, “Too bad you’re not doing something about the unborn.”
“So I asked her, what would that look like if we did that?” Ludgate says. “She never responded.”
In any case, after Mass the campers were ready for their hot breakfast.
“Sister Pauline had breakfast ready for us, grits, eggs, bacon, pancakes,” Ludgates says. “And the best cup of coffee I’ve had in years.” CS