Changing Lives: Atlanta’s Jewish shelters mark 25 years (Atlanta Jewish Times)

Atlanta Jewish Times

Robert Ponder eagerly holds out his hand to a visitor at the Zaban Couples Center at The Temple. “Hi, I’m Robert,” he says, offering a gentle handshake. “I’m one of the resident managers.”

Although he is soft-spoken and reserved, it’s clear he’s proud of his job title. It’s not pride in his own accomplishments so much as in the work he’s doing. He knows first-hand he’s changing lives.

A year ago, Ponder wasn’t the resident manager of the shelter but a guest there. He had lost his job, and it didn’t take long for him to lose his home, too. When he and his wife were on the streets, he was so preoccupied with finding a place to stay that he couldn’t focus on finding a new job. When they came to the Zaban Couples Center, things changed. He knew he and his wife were safe. He had a place to shower, a washer and dryer, and an address he could put on job applications. He found a new job almost immediately, and two months later, he and his wife had saved enough money to move into a new place and leave the shelter behind.

But when the shelter’s board asked Ponder and his wife to return this season as resident managers, he jumped at the chance to pay back what he received. He knows the shelter can turn people’s lives around, and he knows he can offer a level of empathy and understanding that few others can.

“Most of the things that they’re going through, I can identify with,” he says. “If you really haven’t been through it, you can give them answers, but if you’ve been through it, you really know.”

Ponder’s success story is just one example of the impact of the Zaban Couples Center, which this year marks its 25th anniversary. Just a few miles away, the Shearith Israel Shelter for homeless women is also celebrating 25 years of service.

Both shelters opened during the bitterly cold winter of 1984, when homeless people were freezing to death on Atlanta’s streets. Leaders at both Shearith Israel and The Temple felt compelled to help.

Shearith Israel was the first to organize. Rabbi Marc Wilson was intent on the idea of opening a shelter. To make it happen, he called on Helen Spiegel, a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States from Germany in 1939. Spiegel says that because of her personal experience, she felt that she “owed a little rent to this country,” so when Wilson asked her to become the first shelter director, she agreed.

“I didn’t have any good arguments to say no, but I told him, ‘I’ve never run a shelter before,’ and he said, ‘We’ll manage,” and we did,” she recalls.

Amazingly, within two weeks the Shearith Israel Shelter for women was open, a feat made possible by the generosity of many – and the dogged schnorring (begging) of a select few.

“We schnorred all over the place,” says Spiegel. “We had no money. We opened the doors without a penny…. The supplies we schnorred, the paper goods we schnorred…. We all brought linens from home. I mean, you should have seen the colors in there. It was wild.”

The shelter’s leaders say it was Spiegel’s innate charm that convinced people to give goods and hours to the shelter, not only in the first few weeks but in the years that followed. According to Shelley Alperin, who has coordinated the shelter’s volunteers for the past several years, no one could resist when Spiegel asked them to help at the shelter.

“I always joked that it’s a good thing we didn’t have caller ID when Helen started doing it, because when Helen called someone, once you picked up the phone and you heard Helen’s voice, it was impossible to say no,” Alperin says.

When Shearith Israel opened its shelter, it fed a spark among people at The Temple who were concerned about Atlanta’s homeless, too. Like the shelter at Shearith Israel, The Temple’s shelter progressed from a vague idea that “we really should do something” to opening its doors within two weeks. And, also like the Shearith Israel Shelter, it relied on schnorring to get things in place. Reva Ezell, who was a founder of the Zaban Couples Center, remembers piecing together what the shelter needed. Erwin Zaban provided linen service. Ike Feldman and Irwin Lowenstein got beds and furniture. A Jewish plumber installed a shower and a washing machine.

Ezell says that Rabbi Alvin Sugarman was the secret weapon for getting people to give of their time and resources. She likens him to a schoolgirl peddling candy door-to-door. “He’s irresistible, and when Alvin Sugarman asks you to do something, ‘no’ is not one of the possibilities,” she says. “It helped that when the shelter started, Alvin was at his very best as the little, red-haired girl who went around and asked people for things, and nobody told him no.”

Both shelters initially set up beds in their classrooms, but within a few years, both realized that they needed their own space. Shearith Israel moved its shelter into the synagogue basement, and The Temple renovated a floor of the Selig Building, next door to the main synagogue building, to house its shelter.

The volunteers in charge had a lot to learn about running a safe, effective shelter. In their early years, they took in anyone who came to the shelter door.

“That first year especially, it was really catch as catch can,” recalls Ezell. “The first night, Marvin Botnick, who was president of the synagogue, and Rabbi Sugarman, they went out and literally took people out of doorways and off the streets and said, ‘Come on back, we have a shelter for you.’”

It was the same story at Shearith Israel, according to Annette Easton, one of the founders. “We did everything wrong. Whoever needed housing, we let them in. We had drug addicts. We even had a woman with a gun.”

“We really took the word ‘shelter’ literally at that time,” Spiegel agrees.

The leadership at both shelters realized there were some homeless people they weren’t equipped to handle, particularly those with psychological problems. In time, they began to work with Project Connect, a program of Jewish Family and Career Services. Project Connect provides case managers who help the shelter guests find jobs, housing, counseling and other support. The partnership has changed the caliber of people staying at the shelters – someone who is willing to work with a case manager, as required by both shelters, is more likely to be serious about improving their situation. It also has broadened what the shelters can offer, going far beyond the hot meal and a bed provided at a typical shelter.

“Whatever problem you have, you can get help for it here,” Ponder says. “A lot of shelters don’t offer that. They just offer housing.”

Even before they developed their extensive programs, Atlanta’s Jewish shelters always offered what other shelters didn’t, filling gaps in the service community. The Shearith Israel Shelter is one of just two shelters for single women in Atlanta, and the Zaban Couples Center is the only place in town where a couple without children can stay together. That makes it an invaluable resource, says Anita Beaty, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless.

“Can you imagine being in the most frightening and dramatically dependent situation you’ve ever been in, just not knowing what’s going to happen next, and being torn from your emotional support?” Beaty asks. “People who are in committed relationships just need very much to be together more than ever when they’re going through the trauma of homelessness.”

Beaty says Atlanta’s Jewish shelters distinguish themselves not just by who they let in the door and what services they provide, but by the deep concern shown by the people who work there.

“The love and care from the volunteers who serve these facilities is unusual. I wish it weren’t, but it is,” Beaty says, calling the Zaban Couples Center “one of the most nurturing, most hospitable” shelters she’s seen in more than 20 years of working with the Atlanta homeless community.

The shelters have plenty of people to thank for that, in the Jewish community and beyond. It takes thousands of volunteers each year to cook and serve meals, put on programs and stay overnight in the shelters to supervise the guests. The shelters get volunteers from synagogues, churches and colleges. Occasionally, former shelter guests who are back on their feet volunteer to give something back.

Alperin, the volunteer coordinator at the Shearith Israel Shelter, says she’s always looking for new volunteers, but she gets a lot of repeat business. Before the shelter closes for the year in March, people start calling her to schedule their week of cooking or their night to sleep at the shelter for the next season.

Dara Berger is one such repeat volunteer. She started spending the night at the Shearith Israel Shelter five or six years ago, sharing volunteer duties with a friend. Her friend now has a baby and can’t volunteer at the shelter anymore, but that didn’t stop Berger.

“After she stopped going, I just kept going because it made me feel good,” she says.

There’s reason to feel good. The shelters are working. At the Zaban Couples Center, more than half of this winter’s residents had jobs, and when the shelter closed for the season in April, 40 percent of the guests who were at the shelter when it opened in October had moved out into their own housing during the season.

Yet, as many people as the shelters have helped, there are still more in need, so both shelters are working to ensure they’re around for many more years to come. The Zaban Couples Center, which always has been funded through The Temple’s budget, is pursuing its financial and organizational independence. In 2008, the shelter hired its first executive director. Its next goal is to become a separate non-profit organization, so it can pursue grant funding. The Shearith Israel Shelter, which has always been financially independent from the synagogue, wants to shore up its funding with more grants as well, so that it can offer more and better programs that will help people get off the streets, not just for the shelter season, but forever.

When Helen Spiegel helped open the Shearith Israel Shelter in 1984, she never imagined it would remain open for 25 years. She thought after a couple of years, either they would run out of money or the government would solve the homelessness problem. But, she says, as the years went by, it became clear that they had to keep going. “We found out we were very much needed and we had no choice,” she says.

They keep going for the sake of the homeless. They keep going for the sake of the people who gain a new perspective by volunteering. They keep going because what was true 25 years ago remains true today. As Ezell said about the opening of The Temple’s shelter, “It needed to happen, and all the right people were there with the right energy and the right ideas in their hearts and in their heads.”

And they still are.

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Published in the Atlanta Jewish Times, May 1, 2009.