Elizabeth Miller, coordinator of Temple Beth Hillel's winter shelter program in Richmond, has experienced the joys and the frustrations that working with the homeless can bring. One family of four had just stolen the television out of the Super Center's living room. Another client had disappeared, then re-emerged, back on drugs.
And yet, Miller tells success stories, like that of the ex-prostitute who lived at the congregation's shelter, whom Miller would drive to the 6 a.m. BART to make her court hearings.
"She was beautiful with an attitude you could cut with a knife," said Miller. "When she went back to school and got her degree in nursing, I went to watch her graduate. It makes my eyes water that she didn't give up."
The emergency winter shelter program started in 1993 when Beth Hillel's previous rabbi, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, approached the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program; his idea was for synagogues and churches to band together to shelter the homeless during the cold months from November to April. GRIP was already sponsoring the Super Center in Richmond, which provided a place for homeless men and women to receive lunch, along with other services.
From the program's inception, until this past year, Beth Hillel housed the homeless at the synagogue for two weeks each year, starting the day after Christmas. Now, instead of living in a revolving shelter, the homeless stay at Faith Tabernacle Church of God, and instead of housing them at the synagogue, the synagogue provides meals for a two-week period. Rubicon, a social services agency in west Contra Costa County, provides caseworkers to assist. Temple Isaiah in Lafayette has also joined the effort, serving meals.
"The first year, we had them at Christmastime and they wanted to do a Nativity play," Miller recalled. "Now we let a Christian congregation take them at Christmas and we give them a New Year's Eve party. When they used to come to us, they didn't know where they were. One time, one of them saw a Magen David and thought it was the sign of the devil."
The good news, according to Miller, is 98 percent get into housing after leaving the shelter. On the other hand, the recidivism rate is high.
"People make some pretty bad life decisions," she acknowledged.
A past client who has made some good life decisions since leaving the shelter is Alonza Nelson. The 27-year-old single parent of three works full time at the YMCA in Richmond, while attending computer training at night. Her only day off is Sunday.
"I don't want to be a statistic," Nelson said, "And if so, I want to be a successful statistic. My goal is to get on with this and maybe I'll make 80 G's a year."
Nelson never dreamed she'd wind up living in a shelter.
"I had the whole nine yards. A husband who took care of us. I didn't have to work."
After her divorce, her ex-husband took care of the children so that she could go to school. When he lost his job, he left the area and her family wouldn't take her in with her children.
Life in the shelter was hard for Nelson and her children, now 11, 9 and 6.
"The shelter had 30 people and 16 children. I felt a lot of shame and it was embarrassing for the kids. It was hard having other adults telling me when to go to bed and when to get up," said Nelson.
Overall, Nelson appreciated the shelter and believes that she and her children would have been on the street without it. She expressed disgust with some other participants, whom she viewed as ungrateful.
"If someone is offering a bed for you to lay in," she said, "lay in it, but be sure to make it up."
Nelson now has a bed to call her own.
"It's two bedrooms and one bath. It's small, but it's ours," she said.
Unlike Nelson, Sandy Perry has gone through Beth Hillel's shelter twice, and still isn't in permanent housing. The mother of a 16-year-old girl and a 5-month-old boy, Perry just moved back into her own mother's house. She worked at the Naval Air Station in Alameda for 10 years, eventually as an aircraft mechanic, until she got into drugs.
"This wasn't a part of my plan," she said. "I was using drugs when I was pregnant with Derick, and I wanted a better life for him."
Currently, Perry is on a waiting list for a shelter in Alameda and in search of support groups for victims of incest, since she can't afford individual therapy.
Perry, like Nelson, expressed dismay at the attitudes of some of her fellow shelter recipients.
"Some of the recipients are really grateful. Others aren't. They really ticked me off. People were helping them with money out of their own pockets."
Something that Perry is particularly grateful for is Elizabeth Miller's friendship.
"That's my buddy," she said, "She's one of my best friends."
The feeling is mutual.
"Sandy's had one hell of a go. When you get to know the women as I do, there are so many stories like hers, where you wonder how they get up in the morning and put their clothes on," said Miller.
Margie Marks, Beth Hillel's newly appointed religious school administrator, also expressed compassion, which wasn't her first response when she heard about the possible shelter starting at the synagogue.
"It was during the time of my daughter's bat mitzvah and I was worried that the building could be damaged by them. When Rabbi Ascherman brought this up, I was very offended. But for the most part, they've been very respectful and grateful for our acts of kindness," she said.
Marks is also glad that her daughter, who has helped at the shelter, could see people sleeping on the floor of the synagogue.
"It's really brought home the point that not everyone has a home," Marks said. "Not everyone has a bedroom like she has."
Marks frequently brings crafts for the children to play with such as Shrinky Dinks, blow pens, and stencils. One of the biggest hits was the laminator she brought in. "They laminated everything," she said. "Mothers were laminating important papers, too, such as birth certificates."
Discussing the program, Marks added: "I give a lot of credit to Rabbi Ascherman for starting this. He met a lot of resistance at the synagogue and at GRIP. But if not for this, I'm not so sure I'd volunteer at a homeless shelter in Oakland or Berkeley.
"Rabbi Ascherman is now in Israel, rebuilding Palestinian homes that the government has blown up. He's received death threats. And here, he left an ongoing gift for us."