Chapel House shelters Auburn’s homeless

When Chris Coyle was released from prison three months ago he didn’t have a job, a car or a place to stay, so his outlook on life was understandably bleak.

"I was in bad shape at that time. I didn’t think anything was going to work out. I didn’t think I’d actually be able to survive the way I was," Coyle recalled.

His parole officer recommended he check out Chapel House, a homeless shelter run by Holy Family Parish in Auburn. The staff, volunteers and residents welcomed Coyle with open arms, and both his life and his outlook immediately began to change. Now he has a job and a car, and soon he’ll be moving out of Chapel House and into his own apartment.

"It’s been a process but I’m feeling 100 percent better. My life is straightening out," Coyle said. "Really I don’t know what I would do without this place."

Chapel House first opened in the gymnasium of the former Holy Family School building in December 2007. Earlier that year Father Dennis Shaw, pastor at Holy Family, had approached his parishioners with the idea of opening a shelter, and parishioners voted in favor of the proposal. By the end of December Chapel House already had provided shelter for 60 men between the hours of 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.

In those early days the shelter was strictly for men, but in August 2008 Chapel House began accepting women and children as well, said Sandi Mettler, the shelter’s executive director. Then in February 2009, the shelter moved from the Holy Family gymnasium to a house at 36 Franklin St. The parish was able to purchase this house thanks to a large donation from a parishioner, Mettler said.

The donor was leaving a parish Bible-study session one evening when she spotted a mother and a young child going into the former school building. Intrigued, she asked the parish staff where the mother and child were going and asked to tour the shelter.

"She came through with a donation for us to buy a house," Mettler said. "We were blessed to find this house."

The first floor of the three-story house is used for office space and shared living space. The upper two floors house nine bedrooms, which are separated into one section for men and another for women and children. The residents share bedrooms and are responsible for making their own beds and doing their own laundry and other chores, Mettler said. The residents also have a 10 p.m. curfew, she added.

Being in an actual home gives Chapel House residents their dignity, Mettler said, and it helps foster a loving, family environment among residents, staff and volunteers. The residents look out for each other, gather together for meals and even help care for each other’s children.

Chapel House sheltered a total of 513 adults — 356 men and 157 women — during 2009, Mettler noted. Job losses forced many of those people to knock at Chapel House’s door, but many others were the working poor who simply couldn’t make ends meet, she said. A number of other residents were adults who’d been living rent free with their parents until their parents couldn’t support them anymore and showed them "tough love" by kicking them out, she added.

"We do get some that are coming out of prison or jail with nowhere to go. We can’t take sex offenders but we take everyone else," Mettler said. "We also have people coming out of rehab for drugs and alcohol. We have a lot of people that have mental-health issues."

Residents may stay at Chapel House for up to 90 days, provided they are actively working on their issues, which might entail seeking employment, finishing their GEDs, or getting counseling or professional help for their dependency or mental-health issues, Mettler said.

"You’re only going to be here if you’re willing to help yourself. This is a hand up, not a handout. If they choose to break the rules they have to leave," she added.

Chapel House gratefully accepts donations of clothing, toiletries, bedding and furniture, and Mettler said she’s always seeking volunteers for the shelter as well. These volunteers help out with any needs the residents have, from choosing clothing for a job interview and filling out paperwork to providing a listening ear and playing with children.

Mettler and the rest of the Chapel House staff and volunteers listened to Coyle, helped him choose the right path and believed in him when no one else would, he said.

"Sandi’s like the momma hen, and we’re all adults, but yet we need some guidance as well," Coyle explained.

Although Coyle will soon move out of Chapel House, he plans to visit frequently as a volunteer.

"They’ve been wonderful to me so the least I can do is give back to them. When I volunteer it will help me bring everyone else’s spirits up by showing them life ain’t all that bad," Coyle said. "We can all get on our feet. We can actually pick ourselves up and get on the right road."

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