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This articles by Christopher Mario was prepared for the December
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Interfaith Hospitality: Kindness of Strangers
by Christopher Mario
It’s a pretty fair bet that Linda MacMiller has never
read, seen, or even heard of Tennessee Williams’s play "A
Named Desire." Linda didn’t get too far in school, and anyway,
reading serious literature doesn’t seem all that important when you’re
homeless, unemployed, and living out of an old car, spending your
days wandering the New Jersey Turnpike.
But Linda doesn’t need to read a book to know all there is to know
about that famous play’s most memorable line, the one about "the
kindness of strangers." She’s lived it. A few months ago, a good
day for 38-year-old Linda was one when she and her nine-year-old
avoided the attention of state troopers for long enough to catch a
few hours of sleep at a rest stop. Today, Linda’s days are filled
with a job, a home, and two very important things she’s never really
known before: hope for the future, and pride in her accomplishments.
Linda turned her life around through the kindness of the hundreds
of strangers who volunteer with the Interfaith Hospitality Network
(IHN) of Mercer County. A private, faith-based homeless outreach
IHN is a kind of tough-love program for homeless families like
As part of its mission to break the cycle of homelessness one family
at a time, IHN provides temporary shelter in church basements
by a rigorous program of education, mentoring, and hands-on help with
issues ranging from parenting to resume building to making a budget.
The goal: to get these families up and out and supporting themselves
in two months or less.
It works. In the nearly three years since it was started, the Mercer
IHN has served just over 40 families; 37 of those families left the
program with jobs and homes. This astounding record of achievement
springs from the attention, commitment, and hard work of volunteers
like Rand Aspinwall, a construction project manager with the Jingoli
Organization in Lawrenceville, and Randy Brown, an economist and
fellow at Mathematica Policy Research Institute in West Windsor. Both
are members of the First Presbyterian Church of Hightstown, one of
the 11 member churches of the Mercer County IHN, and both are
of a U.S. 1 Helping Hands Award for 2000.
Founded in April, 1998, the Mercer IHN is part of the National
Hospitality Network, a Summit-based umbrella organization of 80
efforts nationwide that takes a novel approach to helping the
Rather than simply constructing homeless shelters, the IHN organizes
networks of volunteer churches and synagogues in particular localities
that agree to provide food, temporary shelter, and wide variety of
support services for a few homeless families, usually in the church
buildings themselves, for a week at a time on a rotating basis.
Although each IHN has a full-time director, just about
everything else these groups do is done by volunteers — a lot
of volunteers. The 500 or so Mercer IHN volunteers, most of whom are
members of the organization’s seven participating churches, provide
and prepare breakfast, dinner, and a bag lunch each day in the church
kitchens. They move the belongings of the homeless families from
to church each week. At least one volunteer stays overnight with the
families, and volunteers are always on hand to provide help, advice,
and a listening ear.
The accommodations these volunteers and their churches provide for
the two or three families in the program at any one time are not
The families sleep on cots in Sunday School rooms and meeting rooms.
They spend their evenings watching old televisions, trying to get
comfortable on folding chairs in fellowship rooms and lounges. They
eat a lot of chili and spaghetti and other dishes easy to prepare
in bulk. They’re rousted out of bed at 6, and take the van to the
day center in Trenton, a base of operations provided by the IHN, where
participants shower, pick up their mail, make phone calls and get
messages, and start their day — off to school for the children,
and out to find apartments and jobs for the parents.
But the toughest part of this tough-love program happens every Sunday
afternoon, when the families must gather up their few belongings and
load them into volunteers’ cars for the move to the next church in
the rotation, to begin another week of spaghetti and sleeping on cots
all over again.
Nobody would want to live this way, but that’s kind of the point.
Rather than simply providing shelter to homeless families, the IHN
focuses on equipping its clients with the skills and support they
need to make it on their own, and the impetus to get out there and
do it. According to Laurie Langbein, executive director of the Mercer
IHN and its only full-time employee, the IHN provides a hand up,
than a handout.
"Our goal is to work intensely with the families to break the
cycle of homelessness, as opposed to a quick fix and six months later
they’re homeless again," Langbein says. "We help them develop
the skills so down the road they won’t continue the same cycle."
And homelessness is a cycle, Langbein says. A clinical therapist and
social worker (Rider, Class of ’87), she has run the Mercer IHN since
it started. She explains that while homeless individuals are often
plagued by mental illness and substance abuse problems, most of the
homeless families the IHN helps suffer from something entirely
but nearly as debilitating: an inability to master the basic life
skills most people take for granted.
"They have difficulty doing basic activities of daily living,"
Langbein says. "Prioritizing, budgeting, thinking of alternatives,
reaching out to the community or a friend, these are just not things
they think of. Certainly some of our families come to us after a major
incident, like a fire. Many have a work ethic. But for the most part,
these are families that have relied on the welfare system for
But that’s not true anymore. And we’re about breaking that kind of
mentality. It’s relearning what you need to do to live."
Some might call this a harsh approach. But then again,
homelessness is harsh. Just ask Linda MacMiller, the IHN graduate
who used to live in her car.
"When you’re homeless, you’re really all alone, there’s nobody
else, just you," says Linda, which isn’t her real name. "When
you’re homeless, that last thing you want to do is appear homeless;
you don’t want to look or act homeless; you don’t want anyone to
she explains when she asks that her real name not be used.
It’s a fictional name, but Linda’s story, although hard to believe
for those of us with homes and jobs and a modicum of stability in
our lives, is all too true.
Like many of the participants in the IHN program, Linda has had a
tough life. On and off welfare, in and out of jobs, and plagued by
serious health problems including lupus and cancer, Linda has
just to survive. And when you’re living day-to-day, a single event
can easily put you on the street.
That’s what happened to Linda. She and her daughter had lived with
Linda’s mother in Bordentown. But after a fight, Linda and her
were out of the house and living in Linda’s car. This kind of thing
is very common among IHN’s homeless families, 65 percent of which
are headed by a single mother, like Linda. According to IHN’s
the two most common events that make these families homeless are a
dispute with a family member, and domestic violence at the hands of
a husband or boyfriend.
Living in her car was not a long-term solution for Linda, but for
a while it worked. Then one day, a state trooper came up to Linda’s
car at a Turnpike rest stop and told Linda he had noticed her at the
rest stop before. Because Linda had her daughter with her, the trooper
said he was going to have to report the situation to the Division
of Youth and Family Services.
Linda’s previous experiences with that agency had not been pleasant,
so Linda decided to get out of New Jersey. She went to Brooklyn. But
then her daughter got sick, and ended up in a public hospital in the
Bronx. While Linda was visiting her daughter in the hospital, her
car was stripped. At her wit’s end, Linda called her mother, who put
her in contact with the IHN.
"I was scared when I found out I was going to a church, thinking
about all the different religions, wondering if I’d have to join,"
Linda recalls. But her fears were soon assuaged. In the program, Linda
found the structure that had been lacking in her life, and it made
all the difference.
"Things are structured here, and I’ve stayed structured —
your body says get up at 6, even when you don’t have to, even on
Linda says. "It’s a good thing — I’m up and ready to go."
And the program offered an even greater benefit for Linda: a sense
of belonging. "You get an extended family here," she says.
Today Linda has an apartment in a safe area of Trenton, and has found
a job as an office assistant in the governor’s office. It’s a long
way from sleeping in an old car at a rest stop.
"If it weren’t for this program, I don’t know where I’d be,"
A happy ending, and one that’s repeated over and over again at the
Mercer IHN. In the past year, the organization’s success rate has
approached 90 percent — and director Langbein claims that not
one of the families the Mercer IHN has helped is known to have
to homelessness. The key, says Langbein, is attitude — of the
organization, of the volunteers, and of the homeless families
"This is not like a government program, not like welfare,"
Langbein explains. "We don’t ask a lot of questions. We don’t
dig. As long as you’re willing to do what you need to do we’re here
to be helpful. We’re not here to be judgmental; you don’t have to
explain. It’s a fresh start. And it’s comprehensive support —
that’s the key. The biggest thing is providing the fellowship and
human contact that lets these families know that people care and that
we want to see them succeed."
That human contact comes primarily from volunteers like Rand Aspinwall
and Randy Brown. Both agree that the IHN program is a major commitment
for the churches and the individual volunteers involved.
"We have 60 people involved in one way or another," says
50, who has been a member of the First Presbyterian Church of
for over 20 years, and who leads the committee that oversees the
involvement in IHN. Those 60 volunteers represent about a third of
the church members who attend services regularly.
"When the families first come in on Sunday, people set up the
rooms where the families stay, bring in their belongings, bring in
supplies," Aspinwall reports. "While the families are staying
in the church, we always have somebody staying with them to take care
of problems and talk with the families. Another group provides all
meals, and at the end of the week still more volunteers clean up and
put everything away and move the families to next church. There’s
a lot to be done in the few weeks leading up to the time we have the
families, which happens every seventh week."
Aspinwall’s church has an active community outreach program, including
assistance for poor families, dinners for AIDS patients, participation
in the Crop Walk to raise money for anti-hunger programs, and
of missionaries in Nepal and Haiti. But IHN is by far the most
most demanding charitable work the church does, he says.
"Most times, it’s a matter of writing a check or sending
Aspinwall says of the church’s outreach programs. "But this is
actually getting involved."
Which can be challenging for the volunteers, Aspinwall
reports. Pretty much every volunteer comes from a stable background,
an intact family, and has some measure of financial security, he
so it can be hard to understand what the homeless families are going
through. Aspinwall, for instance, was raised in a church-going family
in North Jersey, has a BA in architecture from Renssalaer, has lived
with his wife in the Princeton area for 23 years, has two grown sons,
and has worked in construction management for nearly three decades.
Right now, Aspinwall is overseeing a major construction project for
Jingoli at a University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey campus
in South Jersey.
"But we’re dealing with families coming from a completely
environment than anything any volunteer is used to," he says.
"These are families that have lost everything, traveling from
place to place with the clothes they have and a few belongings,
with problems of living in different places week to week in close
quarters. How can any of us really know what that’s like?"
Working with homeless families has helped Aspinwall develop a greater
sense of empathy for people whose lives are much different than his
own, he reports. But an even greater reward has been the satisfaction
of knowing he has been able to help — and that his help is
"I’ve worked with quite a few families, but one that stands out
was a family of a husband and wife with three young children who were
down on their luck," Aspinwall recalls. "Both the mom and
the dad worked, but in this economy, if you miss a rent payment or
are out of work because of illness things come crashing down. This
family took advantage of the program to get on their feet and save
little money, and that’s a family I will always remember as benefiting
from the program, and who were very grateful."
As one would expect of a church-based outreach program, there’s also
a moral and religious aspect to volunteers’ efforts with IHN. "I
have a sense of a call from my Lord that says I should give something
back, should do something for people less fortunate, and I think all
of our volunteers feel called to this work through faith,"
says. "This is a solid way to do that and see positive results
Another benefit of volunteering for IHN, according to Aspinwall’s
co-volunteer and fellow church member, Randy Brown, is the chance
to serve as a role model for some of the younger parents who come
through the program. One such parent, who left IHN with a job and
a home earlier this month, is a 19-year-old single mother with three
"So many of them are young and inexperienced, and in a lot of
cases haven’t had a great role model," says Brown. A graduate
of the University of Illinois, Class of 1972, he has a PhD in
from the University of Wisconsin. "It’s impressive what they’re
able to do, and how they do take care of their kids, given their
"On the other hand, to the extent that we can by example show
a different way to deal with a situation that arises with their
maybe they’ll pick up something," says Brown. "It’s a hard
issue for a volunteer — if you see a parent getting angry at a
kid, what do you do? You might be inclined to say, `hey, maybe you
should do it this way,’ but that could make matters worse. You have
to play each interaction based on the personality of the mother, the
age of the kids, the situation, and how much of a bond you’ve
IHN participants could hardly hope for a more experienced role model
than Brown, who has four grown children — two daughters of his
own, and two long-term foster children — and has been married
for 30 years.
"We started dating when we were 15, got married at 20, then I
went off and got Ph.D. in economics, and we’ve just had a charmed
life," Brown says. "So getting involved in foster care and
doing programs like this one are little ways to give something back.
Not everyone is lucky as we’ve been. We’ve worked hard, sure, but
a lot of it has to do with luck and circumstances."
Brown regularly does the overnight shift, sleeping on
a cot in the church basement just like the homeless families, and
he and his wife are often the volunteers on call when problems arise,
because they live near the church. On Thanksgiving, for instance,
Brown left his family dinner to drive one IHN mother to the emergency
room when she suddenly fell ill.
Compared with the challenges the homeless families face, sparing a
few hours each week to help these families get back on their feet
doesn’t seem like all that much of a sacrifice, Brown says.
"So I don’t sleep in my own bed a couple of nights, big deal,"
says Brown, who specializes in federal government contract research
on social policy issues at Mathematica. "When you think of what’s
really tough, the lives these families lead, it’s a pretty painless
way to make a difference in people’s lives."
Working with IHN changes volunteers’ lives as well, Brown says,
a glimpse into a world most Princeton-area residents never see.
"It changes your perceptions," Brown says. "The common
perception of the homeless is what you see on the street in New York:
an open bottle of booze, standing over a grate to stay warm. But the
homeless we work with are families who are just not that different
from us. Through a couple of bad breaks, health or employment, they’ve
lost the ability to keep up rent payments and are out on the street.
Most of the families are one-parent families, but some are two-parent,
and they’re working real hard despite overwhelming odds."
Volunteers’ perceptions aren’t the only ones that change at IHN,
the perceptions of the homeless change too. Primary among these
is a fundamental inability on the part of nearly every homeless family
served by IHN to fathom how or why people who have houses and jobs
and are often of a different race would spend any time at all worrying
about the problems of people they don’t even know.
"They’re like, what are you doing here?" reports Jessica
a substance abuse counselor at the Anchor House runaway shelter in
Trenton who also serves as a part-time social worker for IHN. "You
have a home; you have a job. When they arrive, the families cannot
imagine why anyone would want to help them. It takes a little time
for trust to grow, but it usually doesn’t take too long."
Other aspects of the program take a little longer to get used to.
Getting up every morning at 5:30 or 6 a.m. is one. Making a plan of
action for each day and sticking to it is another. Recognizing that
one’s actions have consequences, and that IHN is not an open-ended
program is yet another. But although it takes some families longer
than others, nearly everyone adjusts, Zufall reports, and for a simple
reason: nobody is forcing the families to be there.
"It’s a voluntary program. You have to want to be here,"
says. "And if they don’t comply with the requirements of the
they’re asked to leave. But that doesn’t happen very often. For the
most part, families are with us from six to eight weeks, and we’ve
had almost 100 percent success stories, with people finding places
to live, and becoming employed. Now maybe these are not the jobs you
or I would want — fast food, temp agencies — but just getting
a job is an accomplishment when you’re homeless."
Developing life skills is another accomplishment that might not seem
like much, but is a huge step for homeless families. Much of Zufall’s
work with IHN’s families centers on a few very basic things, like
balancing a checkbook and getting the kids to school on time.
"The biggest issue is parenting," says Zufall, "and the
volunteers are especially helpful with that. They bring their own
children along, and that’s the best thing: learning by watching rather
than just talk, talk, talk."
The IHN program puts little faith in talk; action is the goal. Much
of that attitude resides in Langbein, an energetic woman who acts
as den mother, scolding teacher, and one-woman referral agency
for the homeless families in her care. In the evenings at the
volunteers provide the nurturing. During the day at the IHN center
on East Hanover Street in Trenton, Langbein provides the stick.
"Their job is to actively look for employment," Langbein says
in her no-nonsense way. "Most of our families are chronically
homeless, and they need the intensity of our very structured program
to get back on their feet. It’s about support and care and constant
Each day, after ensuring that all the children are taken care of
can continue to attend school in the districts where they formerly
lived, and daycare resources are provided for the younger ones),
reviews each parent’s plan for the day. Just three activities pass
muster: looking for a job, looking for an apartment, and attending
job training. And you’d better do what you’ve said you’re going to:
Langbein checks. Slack off for a day and you’ll get a stern
Become a repeat offender and you’re out.
"Almost never happens," Langbein says of the you’re-out route.
"We have the highest success rate of any IHN in the country. We’ve
placed over 150 adults and children in permanent housing in just two
and a half years."
All of this with a budget of just $120,000 annually, raised through
individual and corporate donations, and aided this year by a $50,000
grant from Governor Whitman’s new Faith-Based Community Development
Initiative, the first program in the nation to provide state funding
to faith-based outreach efforts.
"The reason our budget can be so low is that we utilize existing
resources in the community," Langbein explains. Langbein says
that though 11 congregations actually host the clients, more than
30 churches support the effort to help cook the meals. A paid van
driver provides morning and evening transportation, but school
provide buses for the children to and from the center.
"A big part of what we do is utilize existing services: The Urban
League, Latinas Unitas of the Trenton YWCA, the state WorkFirst
program, and the federal/state Job Training Partnership program."
Another important part of making IHN work is the federal Section 8
housing program, which provides subsidies to low-income families to
help them afford market-rate rental housing at a discount.
a crisis in rental housing," Langbein says. "If you’re making
$8 an hour, and you’re bringing in $1,000 a month net, how are you
going to afford $750 for a two or three-bedroom apartment in a
safe area, even if you get food stamps? You can’t. But with Section
8, you pay around $300 a month, and that’s just barely doable. But
only 50 percent of families that need subsidized housing usually can
find it." Langbein maintains contacts with the Trenton Housing
Authority and Section 8 landlords to get her charges into apartments
they can afford. Not that they stay there: Langbein reports that her
families often refer to such apartments as "the projects"
and do all they can to move as soon as possible.
Which is fine with Laurie Langbein. The families she sees as her
greatest success stories are those who use the resources IHN provides
as a first step to total self-sufficiency. "Most families come
back to visit, especially in the first four or five months after they
leave the program for help, advice, and resources," Langbein says.
"But as time goes on, they don’t really utilize us anymore. And
that’s the way it ought to be."
to help with childcare and parenting training at the IHN day center,
especially in the afternoons after school. Donations of clothing,
household items, and cash are welcome. Contact her at the Interfaith
Hospitality Network of Mercer County, 121 East Hanover Street, Box
3167, Trenton 08619. 609-396-8649.
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