It was a lesson in compassion straight out of the Gospel of St. John.
Born on foreign shores, a man now homeless, brought some of the medical training and compassion for the infirm he first acquired in his native Haiti to bear in caring for a fellow guest at the diocese’s Emmanuel House homeless shelter in his time of need.
After walking the streets of Providence for several hours as a powerful winter storm took aim at New England Jan. 3, Joseph Follett returned early to the diocesan shelter, where he had also stayed the night before. His feet soaked from walking in the light snow that had fallen since he had left that morning, Follett slowly, and with some difficulty removed his socks to dry, but recovered his feet with his wet sneakers.
After overhearing Emmanuel House Director Dotty Perreault express concern about Follett’s well-being considering his borderline diabetic condition, John Compas immediately came to Follett’s aid, removing his drenched sneakers and, taking a wash cloth, he began to gently cleanse and dry the man’s cold, blistered feet. He then obtained a pair of new white athletic socks, recently donated to the shelter, and stretched them over Follett’s feet to protect them.
“What this man needs is some TLC,” Compas said, with an accent that testified to his Haitian French-Creole upbringing.
Tender loving care these days is hard to come by for Follett, according to his adult son Andrew — who is also currently homeless and a guest at Emmanuel House. His father, he said, was once a former special needs teacher who taught for 28 years in the Boston schools.
The experience of the past four weeks, since the two began seeking shelter at Emmanuel House has been overwhelming for both of them.
“Every day here it’s been something special,” said Andrew, who had attended college in Pennsylvania with aspirations of becoming a football coach. “I’ve never really been part of a community.”
Emmanuel House is an evening shelter, so the men must depart in the early morning. Those in need of a place to sleep can then return to the facility, located at 239 Public St., on the city’s South Side, when it reopens at 5 p.m.
But as temperatures dipped Thursday, and snow began to fall, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin called for the shelter to be reopened at noon to provide those in need with a refuge from the storm. He directed that the shelter would remain open through Sunday afternoon.
Following the bishop’s announcement, and a phone call from the shelter’s director to one of the men — who was trying to keep warm for a couple of hours at Crossroads Rhode Island before taking to the streets again — it didn’t take long for word to spread among the three dozen homeless men who had spent the previous night at Emmanuel House that the diocesan shelter was reopening much earlier in the day than usual.
Another group that had set out for Kennedy Plaza soon learned that they too had a warm, safe place to seek refuge from the approaching storm, and redirected their course for Emmanuel House.
By 1 p.m., amid falling snow, about a dozen men had returned to Emmanuel House.
“I was glad for the information,” said Doug, one of the shelter’s guests, of how the group he was with at Crossroads appreciated receiving a phone call from Emmanuel House Director Dotty Perreault inviting them back several hours early.
He and some of the other men had just arrived at Crossroads after visiting Amos House to receive lunch. They were hoping to stay warm for a couple of hours before returning to walk the streets until the diocesan shelter reopened.
As the men sat quietly watching television, Perreault returned to Emmanuel House after picking up some supplies, preparing to hunker down with her staff at the shelter through Sunday.
While the decision to keep the shelter open during the day was a necessary one, given the conditions, it is one that may have ramifications down the line.
“I had to bring on two extra people for weather relief and that will put us over budget,” Perreault says as she checks the level of donated supplies sitting on the shelves of an improvised stockroom created from a small office at the former diocesan day care center.
She is concerned that the added impact to her budget due to the storm may force Emmanuel House to close for the spring season days earlier than it had originally planned, leaving the homeless out on the street with no place to sleep at night.
David, 55, said he was thankful for the opportunity to spend the day inside, and out of the harsh weather.
“It’s freezing. I just got over pneumonia,” he said.
What would he be doing if the shelter had not reopened during the day?
“Probably walking in the city. You can only stay at Crossroads for so long. Just enough to get warm,” he said.
“It’s kind of tough being out there.”
The early opening prompted Perreault to arrange for an earlier food delivery from the Salvation Army, which brings dinner twice a week and breakfast on Sunday mornings to Emmanuel House.
Around 3 p.m., the truck arrived, and the two Salvation Army staff members, assisted by a couple of guests from Emmanuel House, proceeded to carry the warm pasta and a side dish in.
The delivery of food into the shelter was halted only briefly, when what sounded like five gunshots in the distance pierced the air.
“Were those gunshots?” said Roger Cronin Jr., stopping in his snowy tracks near the front door.
After the brief pause, the delivery continued as Cronin and his colleague, Maureen Gensheimer, continued their mission.
Cronin said that even though the weather conditions for driving were becoming increasingly miserable, and he would have preferred to remain inside at that time, experience has taught him how important it is to honor one’s commitment to those in need.
“Both Maureen and I have been homeless ourselves,” he said. “We’ve both been out there. We know what it is like to be cold, wet and hungry. I knew I had to come out.”
Posted with permission from Rhode Island Catholic, official publication of the diocese of Providence.