Harmony Displaced

Posted on 01. Apr, 2006 by in Features

Gabor Kovacs left Hungary in 1976. “Draft dodging,” he explains with a faint smile. “In Hungary, everybody had to serve. You didn’t have a choice.” It is a quiet Tuesday evening at the Trinity Lutheran Church on Wall Street. Gabor sits at a table in a room at the back of the chapel. He occasionally looks over at the window as the daylight fades. It is almost six o’clock.

Harmony Place, a community center for the homeless run by Yale student volunteers, meets here every Tuesday and Thursday from 4 to 10 p.m., and Sundays from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Around us, some of the other guests wait in line to use the phone; some quietly play cards; others sit in folding chairs watching a movie on an old television in the corner.

“You know,” Gabor continues, “that’s the way it was in Hungary. It was a big mess. They were a shell-shocked people. First it was the Hapsburgs, then it was the SS, then it was the Communists… In World War II, you had to fight. And if you fought, you died, but if you didn’t, you were mowed down by your own. Even afterwards, when everybody ended up in business or in city hall, they were still shell-shocked.”

Behind his untrimmed beard and brown, shaggy hair, Gabor has a handsome face. His bright blue eyes gleam and widen as he talks. “Industry, politicians. You can’t trust them. They lie—all of them. And they’re ineffective. Do you know they put nail polish remover in milk? They do. And the government does nothing. Why do you think the rate of birth defects has doubled in the last ten years? Chemicals. Everywhere.”

He goes on, listing government conspiracies and the abuses of the industrial age: the poison in food, the fatal flaws in medication, the rising cancer rates.

Jim, another guest, leans back in his chair on the other side of the table. He looks over his shoulder at the crowd in front of the TV. “They’re probably watching Lethal Weapon Twelve, or something stupid like that,” he says in his soft-spoken tone. “I’d watch movies, but not this garbage. I hate this stuff. But try putting in Schindler’s List or something and see what these guys do.”

Unlike Gabor, Jim grew up just one town over, in Hamden. He comes from a strict Pentecostal family. He has deep, intelligent eyes—which are usually fixed on the floor, and a wide, emphatic smile which he seldom shows. He is well spoken, but usually sits silently apart. Only when we talk about comedy, baseball, or music—he’s attended hundreds of concerts and used to play in a band—does he become animated.

A few of the other regulars are scattered around the room. Cynthia, though no longer homeless, still comes to Harmony Place whenever it is open. She has found God and wants to be ordained. Then there’s Mike, perhaps the most outgoing—tall and slim, with long hair and a nasal voice. He greets everyone and is always the loudest and most cheerful during card games. Mike does odd jobs when he can find them, but is looking for steady work. Dwayne used to cook in a restaurant. Jimmy once worked in the Saybrook dining hall. Joe is always quick with a smile, though he is missing his two front teeth.

Harmony Place offers a respite from the homeless life. There is a phone, a television, games, heat, running water, a washer and dryer, and meals on Sunday. It also fosters a certain sense of community.

“It’s more relaxed here than in the shelters,” says Cynthia. “There are less restrictions. You know more people. You can be yourself.”

This June, after five years in operation, Harmony Place will be asked to leave Trinity Church. If, within the next two months, this community cannot find another home, it will disappear.

Harmony Place was founded in 1999 by the acting Yale Homelessness Hunger Action Project coordinator John Scafidi ’01 and volunteer Gregory Duff Morton ’00. It sprang from Outreach—another community service organization founded by Morton to encourage undergraduate involvement beyond campus. First housed in Fellowship House on Elm Street, it moved to Trinity in 2001.

For a while, it worked. There were weekly meetings between volunteers and homeless patrons to set agendas, as well as boards for conflict resolution, rules, and a constant supply of drivers to and from the shelters. There were protocols, organization, and, it seemed, a plan for the future.

In recent years, however, the number of volunteers has decreased dramatically. The only community volunteer is Frank Dean, who is often the only person there to ensure that the center opens.

Dean has kept every volunteer sign-in book used at Harmony Place. His long, stern face remains set and expressionless as he glances through their pages. “There used to be a lot more volunteers here,” he says, as he flips through 2001, 2002, 2003. “Used to be—we ran out of Yalies.” 2004, 2005… the names dwindle. Some people began showing up once a week, some once a month, some once, and then never again. “Yalies are always busy. I don’t think they’re as interested any more.” The original leadership of Harmony Place has long since graduated, and the spirit that inspired its founding has dissipated in successive generations of volunteers.

As volunteers left, Harmony Place began to run more and more on inertia; the agendas, grievance boards, and activities slackened. Fights—both verbal and physical—have become more frequent.

“I don’t like that the guests bring their stuff in from outside,” says Jim. “It’s called Harmony Place. I don’t feel any harmony here anymore.” He remains pensive for a moment. “Part of me thinks it sucks that Harmony Place is moving out, but part of me thinks it’s good. People fight, they steal from here, they try to sleep in here…” He pauses and looks around and, in a subdued tone of disgust, continues. “People have had sex in this fuckin’ place. That’s not right. That’s disgraceful. There used to be a community, but there is no longer.”

“But,” Jim continues, “on the other hand, it is gonna suck. There won’t be a place to come in out of the heat. And the laundry—nowhere to do your laundry. And the winter,” he says, raising his eyes. “And the winter… we didn’t have a real winter this year, but we’ll have one next year. That will be hard.”

* * *

When Harmony Place first came to Trinity, it encountered a very different parish from the one it is about to be evicted from. “We were on the verge of closing down,” says Pastor Henry Pawluk. He is tall, with wire-rim glasses, a thin goatee, and neat brown hair. His office is an orderly Orange Street apartment adjoining the church. A cross hangs on the wall and a stand crowned with a religious painting props open the door.

“I know it doesn’t look like it from the size of the building, but our congregation had shrunk dramatically. We were living off our endowment.” Trinity had been between pastors for several months, and the month before Pastor Pawluk arrived, church president Jack Nicholson had unilaterally approved Harmony Place’s use of the building’s facilities.

“Jack never did what should be done before making a decision like that,” says Pawluk. “He never consulted the congregation, he never tried to integrate Harmony Place into the community. From the start, it was unpopular with some of the congregation.”

“But,” he adds, “I thought it was an excellent idea. I thought urban ministry was the key to the church’s survival.”

Founded in 1865 by working-class German immigrants, membership in Trinity Lutheran peaked in the 1950s with a largely blue-collar congregation hovering above two thousand. In 2001, Pawluk arrived on the heels of three decades’ worth of rising crime rates and vanishing manufacturing jobs. The congregation had dwindled to fewer than two hundred, with a weekly attendance of around 45.

“Urban churches are in decline. Not just here, everywhere. Saint Boniface, the Catholic church down the street”—Pawluk indicates with a wave of his hand—“was forced to close last year. Thirty one churches in New York alone shut their doors last year. They just don’t have the congregations.”

“You know,” Pawluk continues, carefully phrasing his thoughts, “There has always been a resistance to a religious presence in Harmony Place. Students tend to be secular—and I understand that. But there are some in the congregation who feel that Harmony Place does not care whether the church lives or dies.”

“Over the last five years, three days a week, five hours a day, we have given Harmony Place water, free heat, chairs, room space, kitchen access— all for free. I know it’s easy for students and non-church people to look at the church and say that we’re not doing enough. But when Harmony first came here, we were only open on Sundays—now we’re open every day, for at least half the day. We’re adding new programs, and,” he smiles, “for the first time in many years we’re starting to see people return to the church.”

Indeed, since Pastor Pawluk arrived, Trinity’s weekly attendance has more than doubled to one hundred per week. New groups— Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, church youth groups— have formed, all vying for space. As the church has expanded, tensions with Harmony Place due to fights, thefts, break-ins, and disorder on the part of the homeless have become increasingly serious.

“Our congregation is growing,” Pawluk explains, “and we have to provide for that. It’s very hard for us to accommodate Harmony Place. If we don’t watch out for ourselves, we’ll be gone in five to ten years. Whether you are religious or not, you lose something in a community when a church closes. It’s the center, it’s the conscience. Church-bashing has become very popular in the last few years,” he says, “but we’re the ones still in the city.”

* * *

If there is any future for Harmony Place, it lies with the current coordinator, Yale freshman Sarah Marks. “The more I work with Harmony Place,” she wrote in an e-mail, “the more I am shocked that it has survived as long as it has. It involves a very complex set of dynamics.”

Marks recognizes the challenge of supplying a community center for such a volatile group of people: Balancing the needs of the homeless with the sensibility of the community at large requires delicacy. For the short term, her goal is simple: keep Harmony Place alive by any means possible. Marks is looking to various churches and community groups for a new location. She tries to keep spirits up, encourage volunteers, provide entertainment, and keep the program functioning.

“We have a very committed core group,” she says, “but I think in the future we need to take more care with recruiting.” She hopes to start a formal intern program through Dwight Hall, find grant funding, and maybe even locate a permanent home.

But change comes slowly. The volunteers are few, the churches hesitant, and the great structural changes she envisions remain far off. As of yet, Harmony Place has nowhere to go when it is displaced in June. No one has stepped forward to offer a home. Even the a cappella and improv groups Sarah has contacted to perform at Harmony Place have not responded. Nobody, it seems, is certain of Harmony Place’s future.

As Pastor Pawluk leaves his office, he pauses on the wrought iron stairway and looks out. He points to the parking lot. “See that?” he says, frustrated. “My parishioners get towed when they come to worship. How can you grow a congregation when more than half of them come in from the suburbs, and they have nowhere to park?”

His concern for his flock shows on his face. Pastor Pawluk takes no joy in turning out Harmony Place—that is clear. In fact, he seems pained by the decision. But on the back steps of his office, he is looking forward to a new and thriving urban church—and to an extent, I can feel his enthusiasm. Like the student volunteers who forgot—day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year—the little room in the back of the church they once visited, he, too, has his own future and his own community to think of.

I cannot help but look across the same alley at the back door of the church and the stairs leading up to the room which, in several hours, will fill with New Haven’s homeless— the “shell-shocked,” as Gabor might coin them. And, as Pastor Pawluk closes the door behind me, I think of something Frank had said:

“When we clean up, after we’re done here, they want it spotless. They even want you to sweep up your footprints. They want it to look like you were never here.”

Nick Handler, a freshman in Ezra Stiles College, is Business Manager of TNJ

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