As the sun began to set on the edge of downtown Cleveland and Lake Erie, two men bundled in warm clothes waited alongside the curb on the corner of Woodland Ave. and E. 115 St. The CCEL van pulled up beside them, piloted by six Case Western Reserve University students, five ladies, and one young man. They hopped out of the bumpy vehicle, which carried two aluminum containers of beef stew and a medley of peas and corn prepared by the Leutner dining hall back at campus.
The two men waiting for a meal, named Mark and John, were regulars. The group of spirited students, some new to the process, got out of the van to meet and greet on a first name basis and offer the two men who called the city their home support, as well as a hot meal.
There is a way to have an off-campus adventure during the week without hitting up the same old coffee house or usual restaurant. Labre, pronounced “La-bra,” is a student organization sponsored by the Newman Catholic Campus Ministry that ventures out to some of the most remote areas in Cleveland every Monday night to feed the homeless and make them feel at home. Students duck under bridges covered in graffiti and drive through closed roads to seek out their old timers in their campsites, offering both the warmth of food and genuine friendship.
Catherine Smith, a regular Labre member and pilot of the CCEL van on Oct. 1, gave a brief tutorial to two newcomers in the back seat as she made her way to Leutner to pick up the night’s menu offerings.
“You’re gonna learn a lot about Cleveland tonight,” she said.
Smith has been volunteering for Labre for about one year now. About three out of the five regular crew members serve Cleveland’s homeless through Labre every other week, and the rest of the seats in the van have to schedule with them in advance to get a spot.
“We pride ourselves on building relationships with them,” Smith said, as she continued to give a crash-course to the two girls in the back seat. “We care about feeding them, but we mainly care about making sure they know they’re loved and cared for…because others usually just pass them by,” she said. “Most people just feel at home once they’re on the street…like they’re just talking to a normal person – and they are.”
The Labre Program has been active at Case Western Reserve University for the past two years, since graduates Kelly Rogers and Joey Baum introduced the program from founders at St. Ignatius High School and John Carroll University.
One of the Labre regulars, Alex Abriani, attends NEOCH (Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless) meetings frequently to track down the homeless hot spots in Cleveland.
“Sometimes we’ll stop someone on the street and ask where they live,” said Abriani, Smith’s co-pilot in the passenger seat. They also use outreach programs and police sightings to locate them, or they’ll spot tracks leading into a forest and know they were made by the homeless.
By the final two stops in the round, the Labre team, on the night of Oct. 1, ran out of beef stew. Abriani stopped at Georgio’s and bought two pizzas out of his pocket money so the last few wouldn’t be disappointed with only a helping of peas and corn for dinner.
Labre is having a clothes drive to keep its friends warm through the winter on Wednesday, Oct. 24. Boxes will be delivered to most campus houses, requesting winter clothes and blankets.