Sunday, August 05, 2001

Riot casualties

Tender Mercies copes with a drop in volunteer help

        One of the first things Marcia Spaeth does every morning is check to see who's coming to dinner. Will it be a church group? A school? A service club? She always hopes for lots of guests. They're the ones who bring the food.

        Ms. Spaeth is the executive director of Tender Mercies, the Over-the-Rhine mission that provides permanent shelter for some of our less fortunate neighbors. These people are mentally ill. Before coming to Tender Mercies they were homeless and living on the street.

        They also are some of the invisible victims of the riots that tore through Over-the-Rhine in April. A place like Tender Mercies depends on the generosity of volunteers — people with time and energy to spare, mostly from outside the neighborhood, who come down to Over-the-Rhine once a week or once a month to lend a hand. Since the riot, a lot of them have stopped coming.

[photo] Marcia Spaeth, director of Tender Mercies, talks to resident Georgia as they wait for meals to be delivered.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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        Tender Mercies is scattered among seven buildings on 12th, Race, 15th and Pleasant streets. There are 150 permanent residents and 16 transients on their way to self-sufficiency.

        These people have little in the way of family support. Tender Mercies gives them a place to live, with staffers who make sure they take their medications and who help them navigate the available social service programs. Some of them have Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits of $500-$600 a month, from which they pay rent of $160-$180. But many of the residents are recently off the street, and it may take up to 18 months for them to begin receiving SSI. Until then they pay nothing.

        Once a day they gather in the dining areas of three of the buildings for a hot meal. For most of them it will be the only real meal of the day. This is where the volunteers come in.

        To feed everybody, the staff hopes for three groups a day to each bring in enough for 40-50 people. If you're in one of these groups you know who you are. You're the high school club, or the parish sodality, or the business group that prepares the meal for the third Tuesday, second Wednesday or first Monday of every month. You cook it at home or in the kitchen at your church or school. You pack it up with salads, napkins and deserts, and you bring it down and serve it up.

        There have been a lot of school kids in the suburbs who padded their college resumes with this kind of work over the years. And there have been a lot of others who just do this because it needs to be done and it makes them feel good to do it. The people at Tender Mercies don't really care what the motivation is. They've always been grateful.

[photo] Volunteers Doug Riddiough (left) and Brenda Ruffner serve a meal to Preston, a resident.
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        And then April happened. For three days after the shooting of Timothy Thomas by a police officer, there were riots in Over-the-Rhine. There were squads of helmeted police and crowds of angry people milling around on the streets in front of Tender Mercies. Residents joke that Ms. Spaeth declared “Marcia law,” ordering them all to stay inside during the disturbances.

        It was dangerous and scary. So scary that it has frightened off many of the volunteers that organizations such as Tender Mercies have come to depend on.

        On the wall of the dining area in Haven Hall is a monthly calendar page. The days when meals are promised are noted in red. As of Friday, about half the dates for August remained blank.

        Haven has one of the three Tender Mercies dining areas. Wednesday night it was the one where no one was bringing in meals. The staff doesn't say which groups have canceled on them since April, but there have been a lot. A call comes in from somebody saying they just aren't “comfortable” coming down to Over-the-Rhine any more. Imagine the comfort level of 150 people who might miss dinner because of a call like that.

        So far nobody has gone hungry. Some days after getting one of those calls, Stephanie Sullivan calls up the FreeStore/Foodbank. Crews from that organization cruise the hotels and restaurants, picking up donated leftovers from the steam tables. For $25 Tender Mercies can get enough of these leftovers, assuming any are available, to feed about two-thirds of its residents. If that's not available, the staff will rummage through a storage locker kept for such emergencies and get some of the residents to help whip up a potluck in Haven's kitchenette. Wednesday night that meant some instant biscuits and creamed chipped beef.

   Tender Mercies is always looking for more volunteers. To help out, call Volunteer Coordinator Jackie Walsh at 639-7027.
        “It's not the seven basic food groups, but it beats being hungry,” Ms. Sullivan said.

        Ms. Sullivan is Tender Mercies' director of human resources. That means she handles all the personnel and benefits issues for the 57 staff members. It also means she watches over the wall calendar noting the volunteer meals.

        “I'm a little freaked out about how we're going to build this back up,” she said, pointing to the calendar. “Last year our goal was to have a meal marked down for every single day, and we were almost there.”

        Marcia Spaeth has been known to get on the phone to lean on friends and relatives for dinner donations. “I'm Catholic. I'm OK with using a little guilt.” There also have been times when she and the staff have pitched in to order pizza so everybody will get something to eat.

        Ms. Spaeth, who started as a volunteer when Tender Mercies was founded 16 years ago, still makes dinner once a month for one building that houses 16 women. “One time I said, "Look, there aren't that many of you. Just tell me what you would like. I'll fix whatever you want.' They said what they really wanted was White Castle,'” she laughed. A quick trip to the drive-through window brought $32 worth of sliders to the table.

        A more traditional approach is that of Eastminster Presbyterian Church from Madisonville. On the first Wednesday of every month for the past seven years Bob Brakvill, Doug Riddiough and Brenda Ruffner have bought, cooked and served dinner for Dana Hall, a Tender Mercies building next door to Haven. Wednesday they were serving up chicken and rice casserole, broccoli, salad, rolls, coffee, lemonade and cookies. The cookies were store-bought, which bothered Ms. Ruffner.

        “I hate it when we bring store-bought, but we were on vacation yesterday and didn't have time to bake.” she said.

        The 40-or-so residents who lined up to be served didn't seem to mind. “If you write about this, make them understand these folks are like saints to us,” said Jeff, a resident of Dana for several years.

        The troubles in April haven't intimidated the Eastminster group. “We were part of our church's mission group. Seven years ago we were looking for something to do and we found this,” Mr. Brakvill said. “We've gotten hooked on it.” The riots were a worry, “but these people are still here. The need is still here. It's just something we have to do.”

        It has been more than three months since the riots. Marcia Spaeth, Stephanie Sullivan and the rest of the staff at Tender Mercies hope that if the streets stay quiet many of the volunteers who quit, will feel comfortable enough to come back.

        “People ask me if it is safe to come down,” Ms. Spaeth said. “I tell them it is as safe as it has ever been.”

        Until that sinks in on more people, there will continue to be too many blank days on the dinner calendar in Haven Hall and staff members will continue to call up friends and relatives to see who they can invite over for dinner.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.



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