Rebuilding lives, one connection at a time
Apr 29, 2019 08:00AM
By J. Chambless
Tom Parkins has been helping homeless people in Newark for decades.
By Kelley Bielewicz
Tom Parkins was at a friend’s house not too long ago when he met a man who said, “I know you from somewhere.”
They ran through the possible connections. Maybe the man was a former student or knew Parkins from his days in the National Guard, but no. Eventually the other man said, “I know! You were there at Code Purple one night and you talked to me. I gotta thank you, because you helped me refocus, and I’m no longer on the streets. I have a job now and I’m living in an apartment in Wilmington.”
Parkins, a retired physics teacher at St. Mark’s High School, said that the delayed gratification he gets from working with Newark’s homeless population is a lot like that of teaching students. Sometimes it takes years for his effort to bear fruit, but when it does, the results can be life-changing.
He got involved in this ministry decades ago, after a challenge from his own child. The family was in Philadelphia to see the Christmas lights, and on the way back to the train station, they passed a homeless man who asked for money.
“I brushed him off,” Parkins said. “I told him, ‘I tell you what, I’ll catch you on the way back.’ And I knew I wasn’t going back down Market Street. My young son Scott said to me, ‘But Dad! I learned that God says we’re supposed to give to the poor.’”
The boy’s comment kept his father awake all night, turning over in his head what he could do to set a better example to his children. The next day, he heard a radio ad asking for bell ringers for the Salvation Army. He began bell-ringing and still does to this day.
But it wasn’t enough. About 12 years ago, he got together with a group of like-minded people to figure out what they could do to serve their poorest neighbors. They started with representation from four or five Newark churches and grew to about double that. One of the members, Richard Waibel of Newark Methodist Church, reached out to representatives from Friendship House, who explained what they were doing in Wilmington and what they might be able to do in Newark. From those conversations, the Newark Empowerment Center (NEC) was born.
Today, most of Newark’s homeless citizens are in some way clients of the NEC. “The Empowerment Center is going to, first of all, help coordinate the rebuilding of their lives,” Parkins said. “That’s probably the biggest thing that they do, give them a sense of direction and encouragement. Tell them, ‘You need to do this step, this step, this step.’ They’re going to coordinate, tell them this agency can do this for you, help you, steer you in that direction.”
Around the same time, the group created Code Purple, a winter emergency shelter program. “This idea was generated on one of the hottest days of the year, a dozen years ago,” Parkins said. The group decided that they needed to have a place where homeless people can go on exceptionally cold nights. “We said, ‘The church is empty, it’s warm, let’s open the doors to the church.’ And so we got a group of churches together”
It took a bit of convincing to get everyone on board. There were concerns about what “these people” might do, or what might go wrong when they were let into the churches.
“It was people getting out of their comfort zone, and just fear of the unknown,” Parkins said. But that attitude has been replaced by an enthusiastic embrace of the program among the participating church communities. “People get geared up for it and they’re glad to serve,” he said. “So that fear factor is long gone. It’s a love factor now.”
The NEC was formed specifically to help homeless people of Newark, and most of the clients have personal connections here.
“Some grew up in the area, some have family nearby, maybe at one point they worked in Newark,” Parkins said. He added that those who are regulars around Main Street even help the local police at times, because they see and hear things that are of use to law enforcement. They are, by any definition, members of the local community.
In some circumstances, the NEC can help some clients get into Friendship House living places. Unfortunately, though, those properties are mostly in Wilmington. “There’s nothing in Newark, really, for homeless or transitional people to live,” Parkins said. “We are looking to put something in Newark, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
A question the volunteers and staff of NEC wrestle with is how to help fellow citizens as much as possible without stretching resources too thin. “If we start providing amazingly good services, next thing you know, you’ve got folks coming down from Chester County, Cecil County, coming down from Wilmington, up from Middletown, Smyrna, Dover. So it’s a balance,” Parkins said. “We don’t want to become a magnet. But we do want to be able to provide those services to try to rebuild people’s lives and get them back up and encourage them.”
The NEC’s definition of homelessness refers to anybody who doesn’t have a regular place to live. An example might be someone who stays with a friend one week, in the back of a car the next week, then with a family member the next. “They bounce from place to place. They’re homeless, even though they’re not necessarily sleeping on the street,” Parkins said.
He estimates that Newark’s homeless population is anywhere between 15 and 50. “At any one time, the number can vary because the homeless population is very transient. You know, ‘My girlfriend threw me out of the house, and all of a sudden I’m homeless for a week or until she takes me back.’ It also depends on what do you call Newark -- just the city limits, or surrounding area. There are a lot of variables.”
The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that Delaware has 10.4 homeless per 10,000 people in the general population, a lower rate than Maryland’s or Pennsylvania’s, but slighter higher than New Jersey’s (12.0, 11.1 and 9.5 per 10,000 respectively). The national average is 17 per 10,000.
How many of those are children? “I don’t know a number, but there’s too many,” Parkins said. “I do know that there are some that are living in cars. They may get motel rooms or stay with somebody at different times, but they’re living in the back of a car, by and large.”
The daily life of a homeless person tends to revolve about taking care of personal possessions, according to Parkins. “ ‘Where am I going to charge my cell phone? Where am I going to go to the bathroom? Where am I going to wash up? Where can I get my clothing clean?’ Those challenges are there all the time. ‘Where am I going to get something to eat?’”
The NEC collects and distributes things like hand warmers, socks and underwear. “You don’t think of underwear as a very glamorous gift, but it’s really welcomed,” Parkins said.
Keeping clothing clean is difficult for people living on the street or in a car. The NEC used to give out vouchers for a laundromat in College Square, but that business has closed as the shopping center began undergoing renovations. They are seeking a replacement program, but have not yet been successful.
The NEC also distributes go-bags, which are often prepared by school or scout or church groups as a service project.
Parkins challenged people to think beyond material giving and consider making connections directly. “I found a few guys that I would take to breakfast, and that’s all they wanted to do,” he said. “We just sit down and talk about the things that we always like to talk about, Phillies or what’s going on around town or this or that. Would someone consider doing that? It’s a little bit of a step out of your comfort zone.”
Food is a time-honored way to bring people together, so Parkins and his fellow congregants at Calvary Baptist Church have holiday parties for the “homeless, hungry and lonely.”
On the Fourth of July and Labor Day, they host picnics. “In particular, we want to include our homeless folks and the people who are at Hope Dining Room during those holiday weekends who need a meal. They count on their meals. So we invite all of them, and it is very festive. And it’s just a wonderful, wonderful time,” Parkins said. Several NEC clients come early to help set up tables and chairs, or stay late to clean up. Anyone is welcome, and it’s not unusual for the hosts to serve hundreds of grilled burgers and dogs to people from all walks of life mingling over potluck potato salad.
“I think it’s good for the community to realize these folks are no different than you or me,” Parkins said. “It’s just circumstances and life have thrown them some curveballs and they have some other challenges that maybe some of us don’t have. But they still like to celebrate and they still want to be part of the community.”
On the day after Thanksgiving, Calvary Baptist hosts a Black Friday Feast, when people bring their leftovers and share a meal with anyone who needs it. “It gives everybody a little sense of family and community,” Parkins said.
On Christmas Eve, anyone is welcome to enjoy a holiday dinner and spend the night in the church. On Christmas morning, Santa comes bearing gifts.
“We try to make them a little bit practical but we also give everybody a gift card to McDonald’s and a gift card to Wawa to take and enjoy a day,” he said. Although the goal is to provide joy to others, Parkins said he benefits at least as much. “I like to think that I experience true joy on Christmas,” he said.
The average Newark resident might be surprised to learn some of the stories of the kind of lives NEC clients had, and how they lost them, and how much they want to try to regain what they had. Some of the chronically homeless have all but lost hope.
“There are those who’ve done this so long it’s hard for them to visualize changing that life,” Parkins said. “In some cases, it revolves around maybe an addiction or a mental issue, and they can’t quite seem to make that change in their life.”
But Parkins hasn’t given up on them.
“I want people to try to put aside that stereotype of the bum who doesn’t want to work, who is just trying to make a buck to buy the next fix of heroin. That’s not all our homeless people,” he said. “There’s a richness of life that is still there. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of encouragement to reach out and see if we can’t pick up somebody and love them.”
The Newark Empowerment Center
The Newark Empowerment Center is a program of Friendship House, Inc., a Delaware nonprofit corporation with 501(c)(3) status. The NEC is open weekday afternoons in Newark Methodist Church (69 E. Main St., Newark).
Friendship House, based in Wilmington, is a nonprofit, faith-based organization serving individuals and families that are or are at risk of becoming homeless. Its six-stage program provides clients with a pathway from survival to self-sufficiency. Services include food, clothing, medical assistance and emergency shelter in the early stages to job readiness, recovery and credit restoration and eventually to independent living and strategies for weathering future crises. For more information, visit www.friendship-house.org.
Go-Bags for the Empowerment Center
Fill a gallon-sized plastic Zip-Loc bag with the following:
• Protein serving (pasta, stew, tuna or chicken soup); flip-top cans only
• Granola or cereal bar
• 8–16 oz. juice box
• Peanut butter/cheese crackers
• Fruit serving, such as single-serve peaches, mixed fruit, applesauce or raisins
• Napkin and plastic spoon
• Dessert optional (single-serve pudding, cookies)
Go-bags should be delivered to the Newark United Methodist Church, at 69 E. Main St.