By Lauren Wanko
“I been treated so incredibly nice here. It’s very humbling,” said Richard Wanlaincourt.
Wanlaincourt is homeless, but during these cold winter nights he’s found a home of sorts in six different congregations in and around Freehold.
“We try to make it a home-like environment in a congregation,” said Hope Lutheran Church Pastor Patricia Medley.
It’s called the Emergency Housing and Advocacy program, launched in 2003 by the Freehold Clergy Association — an interfaith group determined to help the homeless in their community.
“We want to keep people from freezing,” said Medley.
The program runs from Dec. 1 through March 31. Guests are often referred by social service agencies. The men rotate among the six congregations each night — seven nights a week. Here volunteers serve dinner. On this night sandwiches, homemade deviled eggs and hot soup. Especially welcomed when temperatures dip below freezing.
When asked what it is like to be out in conditions like this, Bill Strong said, “Bitter, bitter. You find shelter wherever you can find it.”
Strong calls himself a victim of the recession. He lost his job, his bank account dwindled, then he was evicted.
When asked if he ever thought that he would be homeless, Strong said, “No, no I didn’t think it would last as long as it did.”
During the day, Strong looks for work but he feels fortunate there’s a warm place to sleep throughout the winter. After their meal, the dining room is transformed into sleeping quarters. Here at the Church of St. Veronica, air mattresses are inflated. There are cots at other congregations. Guests have bins full of sheets and blankets at every location. Two chaperons sleep with the guys each night, serve them breakfast in the morning and drive them back into Freehold.
“There’s a blessing that comes with it,” said volunteer Mark Bonjavanni.
On this night, Bonjavanni is sleeping over.
“I’m fortunate enough to have a home seven blocks from here that I can go home, not all these guys have that,” he said.
All of the men are screened at a different congregation before they are driven to the site where they’ll spend the evening. Volunteers search bags and administer a breathalyzer. If it’s positive, they’re not invited to stay the night.
“That’s not their only opportunity. They can come back and the nice thing is that many of the men have discovered if they can stay clean and sober for four months, they can do it for a lifetime,” said Medley.
About 70 volunteers dedicate their time each week.
“The best part is seeing some of our guests find jobs,” said volunteer Vic Lagdameo.
They estimate it costs about $10 per guest per night. The program operates on a shoestring budget — about $15,000 a year — all privately funded.
“We’re not a shelter, we’re a hospitality site,” said Medley. “We’re allowed to house up to 14 guests.”
Licensed social worker Joan Mandell helps each guest develop goals. She assists with everything from getting a birth certificate to finding housing. The program placed 11 guests in permanent housing last year.
“You really want to have these gentlemen be in a better place when they leave from when they came. You want them to be able to carry on with their lives,” Mandell said.
A nurse visits weekly. The same guests are typically together each night. Wanlaincourt likes entertaining the group with his harmonica.
“They come and develop a community. They really care about each other,” Mandell said.
“You don’t expect it will happen to you, but I’m just one of the many. I’m just lucky to be in a program like this. You just can’t lose hope,” said Strong.
Strong isn’t losing hope. This year, he’s determined to find a new job.