New homeless shelter as nice as health club
By: Erica Bryant
On the walls of the kitchen of the old House of Mercy, there hung three or four paintings of Jesus eating with his disciples. And a sign that read, “A good friend will bail you out of jail. A true friend will be sitting next to you saying ‘damn that was fun!’”
CW Earsley is in charge of the kitchen and he hung the sign. Sister Grace Miller, the sister of Mercy who founded this homeless shelter, wasn’t one to object. Since opening the first House of Mercy in 1985, she has been to jail several times for protesting on behalf of the poor.
On Sunday, Sister Grace was trying to dispel rumors concerning the homeless shelter’s imminent move to a sparkling, newly renovated building on Ormond Street.
The spirit of the House, she said over and over, would stay the same. Homeless people may stay as long as they need. The House will never turn anyone away.
Meanwhile, volunteer chefs prepared the last lunch — turkey, pork loin, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy — to be served out of the Hudson Avenue facility. Many of them, like Douglass Johnson, know what it feels like to be homeless and in need of a hot meal. “I give my time to the House because they gave their time to me,” he said, chopping red peppers. “When nobody else would.”
Earsley usually runs the kitchen on Sundays, but he was busy preparing for the move so Smokey Williams was the boss. After Williams’ home in Louisiana got washed away in Hurricane Katrina, he came to Rochester. When FEMA aid ran out, he ended up at the House of Mercy and asked to help out in the kitchen. “I like to eat and I’ll work for my food,” he said. Williams is back on his feet now, but he kept volunteering and now runs the kitchen most of the time.
On Sunday, he passed out tasks to people like Mike “Stretch” Austin, who had also lived at the House for a spell. “They took good care of me,” he said. He’s excited because the new House of Mercy has an automatic dishwasher. He had to hand wash all dishes at the House on Hudson Avenue, in a sink with a pan underneath it to catch the water that dripped from a pipe which had been duct taped, and duct taped again.
Much at the Hudson Avenue facility was held together with duct tape. Though the shelter regularly slept 100 people, there were no beds, only donated couches and floor mats. Residents, some of whom had lived at the House of Mercy for more than a decade, ate their meals from Styrofoam containers balanced on their knees. “We have been getting by rough and tumble for 30 years,” said Earsley.
He started cooking for the House of Mercy just before Thanksgiving in 1988. At that time the House of Mercy was in a house on Central Avenue. There was a four-burner house stove and about 65 people to feed. Earsley, a former army cook, knew how to prepare food for 1,000 people at a time, but he had to get creative given the equipment. He cut the turkeys down the middle with a meat cleaver and flattened them out so he could fit three in the oven at a time. The meal got done and the hungry got fed. “It was a three-day adventure,” he said.