a special message from the director of
Upper Room of Erie, a homeless shelter

Happy Birthday Upper Room

Back when the Upper Room opened on March 6, 1995, homelessness looked a lot different . On that historic morning, Delbert Turner was the first one thru the door at St. Paul's UCC. He, "Cheeseburger" (David Thurston), Danny, and seven others gave our brand-new staff their first personal encounter with homeless people. We were all nervous but needn't have been. They were polite, well behaved, and perhaps some just a little drunk.

Colored Pencil Drawing of Flowers in a Vase Danny was a puzzle. He'd been released from Warren State Hospital some years ago, came back home to his family, and fell thru the cracks in the mental health system. Dirty, smelly, and cantankerous, his fondness for sleeping on garbage had earned him the nickname of "Dumpster Danny." But he was surprising in another way; he was deeply interested in art and artists and kept up with whose painting recently sold for how much. He was also artistic himself, purchasing colored markers out of his "welfare" allowance and painting on whatever paper, cardboard, etc he could find. He always did variations on a single theme: flowers in a vase. The vase might be on a table or in the air, there could be a single flower or many…sometimes even an apple would appear. Danny would die in a nursing home some years later, clean and sweet smelling, of cancer.

That was in 1995. Flash forward to 2013. Our attendance, which had begun with 10 people, is now around 125 per day. Delbert Turner is still with us, but today he is the elder statesman of a new and different crowd. As our country's economy and job market have dwindled, those with only basic work skills and/or mental or physical disorders have seen their jobs vanish and the cost of living soar. Those who used to find escape traveling in boxcars or drinking have been replaced by younger people with addictions to a wide variety of medications and illegal substances. Even common household items.like bath crystals are now abused. Just yesterday I met a man who had been seen "huffing" fumes from paint and washing them down with whiskey. His speech was beyond understanding.

The old guys are now younger, in some cases much younger. Recently we were visited by two eighteen year olds. A frequent explanation is that they don't get along with a parents' romantic partner. They have no jobs but seem to have no trouble finding tobacco or alcohol and drugs to fill the emptiness of their lives. They'll pass up food in favor of cigarettes. Both men and women are sexually reckless, undereducated, and lacking direction. Fortunately they are still in the minority …for now.

But what they lack in numbers they make up for in difficulty, and they quickly exhaust the energy and patience of those whose purpose is to help them.. The old 80/20 rule certainly applies. We spend 80 percent of our energy on 20 percent of our visitors. Yet amazingly, we continue…encouraged by the majority who need and appreciate what we do with a smile and a "thank you" for the clean bathroom, the free coffee, dry socks, and the love and respect we try to show them.

Yes, the work is frustrating and exhausting, but it is also quite rewarding. With these strangers we have established a family of sorts. It's quite rewarding. Come join us and see for yourself. We'll have another birthday soon enough.

Tom Schlaudecker
March 18, 2013

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