November 21, 2008

The HomeVan Provides for the Homeless ~ Michael Levin.

(photos by Michael Levin of zoobird.com unless otherwise noted)

“We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.” — Mother Teresa of Calcutta

The HomeVan is a local Gainesville, FL organization that passes out food and supplies to homeless people. It’s been organized for years by Gainesville locals Bob and Arupa Freeman.

Bob (above, with companion, Bobo) was involved with building Gainesville’s Acrosstown Repertory Theater. He and Arupa have been running The HomeVan for the past ten years or so. Basically, the HomeVan is a big van stocked with food, clothing and supplies like bandaids, candles and last night’s most popular item: socks that can be used as gloves. The HomeVan volunteers man the van and hand out its contents to help the homeless. The HomeVan volunteers also dole out invaluable commodities: sympathy, conversation and caring. Arupa publishes a HomeVan newsletter. You can read some of them on Zoobird in the Caring Zoobirds group. If you’d like to be placed on the HomeVan newsletter mailing list, you can contact Arupa here on Zoobird.

“People who are homeless are not social inadequates. They are people without homes.” — Sheila McKechnie

I went out as a volunteer with the HomeVan for the first time last night. I first learned about the HomeVan from Bob “Sh’mal” Ellenberg, a person I met when I first encountered a magical garden called “The McRorie Community Garden” in Gainesville’s East side. I wrote extensively about Sh’mal in a previous Elephant Journal article entitled “Homelessness”. I’ll repeat a little of it here in case you don’t want to surf to read the Homelessness article right now. When Sh’mal introduced himeself to me, I asked him to repeat his name. “Sh’mal”, he said. I asked him a second time and he replied “Bob. Bob Ellenberg. I call myself Sh’mal, a combination of name of the Jewish prayer, the Shma, and Allah.

Sh’mal is a social worker who recently moved to Seattle to be closer to his grandson. He worked here primarily in placement of homeless and mentally challenged in low-income housing. Sh’mal and I struck up a friendship when I stumbled upon The McRorie Community Garden this Spring. I inherited his patch and have benefitted from his wisdom ever since. He was featured in a documentary called “A Sh’mal World”,  directed by Michelle Friedline and Laureen Ricks. two University of Florida School of Journalism grad students. Take a look at the trailer. The film poignantly describes a homeless man with psychiatric disorders and addiction who Sh’mal finally places in a furnished low income housing unit. Soon, Sh’mal discovers that his client has sold all the furniture. Sh’mal deals with the situation gracefully and appropriate humor, but in the world of so many issues that have no hard and fast solutions, how many can adequately help people in similar situations?  A Sh’mal World, indeed. A tough world, sometimes. And,  a little tenderness and empathy combined with good sense go a long way.”A Sh’mal World” debuted just before Sh’mal’s going away to Seattle party in June which occurred at the Gay Pride Center here in Gainesville.

Sh’mal spoke after “A Sh’mal World” was viewed. I had asked him when we talked in the McRorie Community Garden if he was ever afraid when he went out into the tent cities and areas in town where the homeless were. When he spoke after “A Sh’mal World” was shown, he mentioned my question. I felt the gaze of many people in the audience as he explained that he wasn’t afraid. Sh’mal said “homeless people were people caught up in circumstances beyond their control.” And, that you “do what you gotta do”.

“It is not necessary to advertise food to hungry people, fuel to cold people, or houses to the homeless.” —  John Kenneth Galbraith

Last night, the temperature in Gainesville dropped below freezing. We met at Bob and Arupa’s house near McRorie Community Garden to organize and get instructions for the evenings work. Arupa told me that I’d take care of the front passenger seat area of the HomeVan. Danny and Joe were to take care of the center of the van, and Bob would man the back.


The HomeVan Headquarters is itself a shrine to the beauty of life, in all its manifestations. You can see the HomeVan at the right in the picture above. Bob and Arupa’s home also serves as a food bank. It’s walls are covered with art and theatrical posters from Bob’s past days at the Acrosstown Repertory Theater. Most of the art was done by either Bob or Arupa and is truly remarkable. You can see a collection of pictures of it I took here.


HomeVan HQ is creatively decorated with a thought-provoking assortment of artistic elements that all convey various messages, most left to the viewer to interpret, such as the collage of high-tech in the photo above.

 I manned the front seat of the HomeVan. There, I handed out clean socks, candles and medical supplies like bandaids. Two new volunteers showed up named Lisa and Amanda, referred to the HomeVan by a local church. Amanda told me she was a English and Telecommunications major at the local college. Then, she said “Oh, yeah. I changed my major. Now I’m a Poly Sci major!”, and laughed. Arupa didn’t come last night because she had been feeling under the weather. 






Volunteers Joe Jackson  (above) and Danny manned the center of the van with the sliding door open. Joe stuffed bags with sandwiches and food while Danny met and greeted the line of chilly homeless folk. The homeless know the HomeVan comes out that regularly on Tuesday night at about 7PM by the Gainesville Courthouse. Bob took care of the back of the van stocked with blankets, clothes and tents. 

As the line progressed, I saw faces I thought I recognized from the film “A Shmal World”. I think saw the man who Sh’mal had placed in a furnished low income housing unit. And, I think I saw the woman featured in “A Shmal World” with the dog. 

People walked up and asked me if I had certain things, like a tampon for a girlfriend or vitamins, both of which I didn’t have. I heard Danny tell people repeatedly “You can have more sandwiches, but here’s two first and go to the back of the line.” Many people asked me where Arupa was. They looked concerned when I told them she wasn’t feeling well. 

One of the people offered to help and struck up a conversation with Amanda. She asked him what he liked to read. He said he’d worked through most Westerns he could get his hands on. He asked her what she liked to read. Amanda said “I like Christian novels”. 





Light banter floated around as we handed out food and blankets. Other people who weren’t homeless chatted with the folks in line. I recognized Len Ringel from Sh’mal’s going away party. He told me he’d been working in a literacy program lately and asked me to pass my regards to Sh’mal. We chatted as I handed out candles and bandaids to people who had just received bags full of peanut butter sandwiches and Vienna sausages, a favorite. I could tell people felt a social warmth, chi, from this encounter, both from the handshakes and expressions on their faces as they said “Thanks, man”, and walked off, knowing that they’d be warm, full and have some light on this cold night.

Afterwards, we drove the HomeVan back to Bob and Arupas house. Danny excitedly told Arupa “We gave out all of the stuff!” with a big, proud smile. Joe told me “Mike, next time, you gotta sit in the back of the van [where sandwiches are stuffed in bags]. That’s where the action is!” I think that’s where I’ll be next Tuesday.



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