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Friday, October 05, 2007

UB story: Friends on the streets

From today's UB:
Friends on the streets
Labre Program nurtures friendships among students, Cleveland's homeless

By Wendy A. Hoke

It’s one thing to feed the homeless, but quite another to nurture friendships.

Just ask John Carroll University senior Brian Mauk.

For the last six years Mauk has joined a group of fellow students in the Labre Project, cooking and delivering meals to homeless people around Cleveland. Along the way, he's made some friends with the people who have no home.

Mauk, who grew up in Old Brooklyn, first got involved while a junior at St. Ignatius High School. “For me this is a real commitment to another person, not only of looking out for their special needs, but also a commitment to friendship,” he said from the austere Labre offices in the Bohannon Center on the JCU campus.

Using money from donations and an annual fundraiser, student members buy food from the Cleveland Food Bank at 7 cents per pound. “Our nutritional value has gone up tremendously since we started buying from the Food Bank,” says Mauk as he shows off the kitchen and pantry.

For 155 consecutive Fridays, the Labre Project has been cooking meals and delivering them to people without homes. But more than delivering food and goods to the needy, Labre's ministerial focus is friendship.

Named for St. Benedict Joseph Labre, an 18th-century French Trappist monk who lived himself as a homeless person, members of Labre live by the maxim, “Poor in the eyes of men and women; Rich in the eyes of God.”

Meals vary depending on what is available at the Food Bank. Food is placed in large water coolers to keep warm during transportation. Before leaving, students gather for reflection and prayer. They pile into two university vans—one heading west, the other heading east—to deliver the food and items such as socks and shoes from the Cleveland Browns and clothing donated by the local community.

“This has grown to the point where the homeless expect we’ll be there for them,” said Patrick Prosser, adviser to Labre. “Lasting relationships develop and that’s very different from a traditional faith-based feeding program.”

Food is simply the hook.

Mauk admitted that in the beginning there was skepticism about the group’s motives. “We’ve developed a reputation as people they can trust. We’ve become their family and share in their good news and bad news,” he said.

It can be a long road, but Mauk and his fellow members are patient.

“I used to see Jean by the tracks near the lakefront. She was very isolated. It could snow on a Tuesday and by Friday there were still no tracks in the snow. She used to just take the food. But now she has an apartment and we listen to music and laugh together,” he said.

Clarissa Lake is a JCU freshman, but is not new to Labre. She began helping when her brother was at St. Ignatius and she was a student at St. Joseph Academy. “I was a little intimidated at first,” she admitted.

One of the first people she met was John, a man who was once badly burned with gasoline while he was sleeping. But his burns are not what she remembers about him.

“His laugh was so powerful that I was taken aback,” she said, laughing. “Now it’s to the point where I remember their stories and they remember mine.”

Always the students are instructed to remember that they are entering a person’s home. “Whether it’s is two plastic sheets hanging over railroad tracks or a Section 8 apartment, we have to remember that these people are inviting us into their home,” Prosser said.

Throughout the night, students will visit about 20 people on each side of town, plus about 80 at the end of the evening at Public Square. As word spreads the students will add more stops. All visits are documented so that students can learn more about the needs of the homeless and respond the following week.

Safety is taken very seriously. Although a core group of students are involved with Labre, there’s also a mix of students every week, sometimes even a waiting list to participate. Mauk conducts an orientation to ensure everyone’s safety.

So what have they learned about the causes of homelessness?

“My speech is that everyone is homeless, it’s just that these people lost their phone book and can’t—for reasons of mental health or addiction or whatever—call a friend and crash at their place,” he said.

Mauk, who is contemplating graduate school for nonprofit administration, is proud of Labre’s work and describes it as the little engine that could.

Hoke is a freelance writer.

How to help
Labre Ministry can use a number of items on a regular basis, including:
• Cash
• D, AA, AAA batteries
• Jackets and jeans in all sizes
• Clean like-new blankets
• Personal hygiene items (travel size)
• Hats, gloves and scarves
• New socks and underwear

Call (216) 397-6863 to donate.
Additional info: I had asked Brian Davis of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to comment on Labre's work. While I didn't receive his comments in time to include in my story (that's my fault because it dawned on me late, as in the day my story was due), I wanted to provide them here. Thanks, Brian!
"There are a number of programs that go down and provide food to homeless people, but also stress the need to deliver God as well. While some friendships are made among these groups, God often gets in the way of the relationship. If the guys are not ready for God or if they choose Islam or some other path, the individuals from the churches move on.

Labre does not force religious indoctrination on anyone. The primary purpose for being downtown is to make friends with the population. The other thing that they have helped us with is developing a map of the campsites so that the social workers can do their job to provide help. They are supporting the professional outreach workers in the community. The others are often working at cross purposes to the professional outreach."

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