Polaneczky: The homeless helpers among us

Judy Schaffer fed a homeless woman every night for more than three years, and now visits her every three weeks in a behavioral health center.

THE OLD woman was sitting in the lotus position on the sidewalk at 10th and Market, right outside the McDonald's. Judy Schaffer noticed her immediately that evening in 2005 while returning home from work.

"I passed her, and she said, 'Do you have a dollar?' I said, 'What do you need it for?' She said, 'Cigarettes.' I said, 'You shouldn't be smoking,' " recalls Schaffer.

"I gave her the dollar and went home and thought maybe I should bring her some dinner."

So she returned with a hot meal in easy-to-dispose packaging - and returned every night after that for three years. She brought meatloaf with vegetables, chicken cutlets, ham with mashed or sweet potatoes.

Most nights, the homeless woman, whom I'll call Roberta, wolfed it down. But other times, she'd throw it. Schaffer didn't care; she could tell something was wrong with Roberta.

"I just accepted it," shrugs Schaffer, 74, who works in retail.

Sometimes, Roberta's delusions got the better of her, and medics would be summoned. The bike cops would tell Schaffer where Roberta had been and she'd trek to the hospital - Episcopal, HUP, or Friends - to visit with food.

A few years ago, Roberta got permanent placement at Belmont Behavioral Center on Monument Road. She is now 80, well cared-for and safe. Schaffer visits every three weeks, bringing her four pints of milk, two bags of Werther's candy, Wrigley's spearmint gum, a hot cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee, a chocolate doughnut and 5 bucks.

"I don't know why I do it," says Schaffer, showing me a photo of a smiling Roberta, whose eyes look happy beneath short bangs. "I guess I feel sorry for her. She has kids, but they never visit."

I met Schaffer after receiving a note from her daughter, Judith Rose, who wanted to tell me about her mom's big heart.

Rose had just read a column I'd written about Doreen and John McGettigan of Media, who'd taken in a homeless, mentally ill 80-year-old woman who they presumed would stay a few nights but who wound up living with them for two-plus years.

Readers responded powerfully to the McGettigans' story, vowing to act with more humanity toward the homeless men and women they encounter on the street.

Rose told me that her mom had been helping Roberta for a long time, with no expectation of praise or thanks.

"She has been visiting [Roberta] for years," wrote Rose. "Despite the struggles my mother has gone through - open-heart surgery, being hit by a car - she has rarely missed a visit."

Roberta "is someone's mother," continued Rose. "She's a grandmother. She is a daughter. She was part of society, then it fell apart. Had it not been for my mother, who is elderly herself, she [Roberta] would have already been gone and forgotten."

Without a doubt.

Jim Pavlock reached out, too. He wasn't looking for praise or thanks, either, but for help.

Last fall, he befriended a homeless man I'll call Eddie, who'd once been a globe-hopping retail buyer in Manhattan. Eddie had lived in the 'burbs with his wife and kids until he suffered a mental and physical breakdown after an accident. He became hooked on pain meds, started drinking, lost his job and, eventually, the family that had anchored him.

Pavlock, a Center City lawyer who lives alone, got to know Eddie during lunches at the outdoor plaza at the Comcast Center and was struck by his intellect and determination to reclaim his life. Eddie visited the library every day, using the computers to look for jobs and to send resumes. He attended church and volunteered at Broad Street Ministry, where he also ate free meals.

"He was trying so hard to turn things around," says Pavlock.

Slowly, Pavlock grew to trust Eddie. He let him use his shower and laundry; once, Eddie even stayed for two nights, after a brief hospitalization. By last fall, as the mercury fell, it felt right for Pavlock to invite Eddie to stay until warmer weather returned.

Eddie has been a respectful and courteous houseguest. But he remains unemployed and his family ties are still tenuous.

And Pavlock, with a guilty heart, has begun to miss the privacy he enjoyed when he lived alone, when his spare bedroom had always been available for out-of-town family members who love visiting Philly.

"I don't know what to do," he says about Eddie. "It's beginning to look like he'll never find a job."

I spoke with Eddie, who asked that I not use his real name because he thinks it will hurt his job prospects. He seemed eager to leave Pavlock's home, but without a job where would he go?

I called Project Home on Pavlock's behalf, and PR director Amy Burns suggested he contact the agency. She noted that Philly has many Good Samaritans like Pavlock who open their doors to the homeless.

"We don't track them, but anecdotally we hear of cases like this all the time," Burns says. "Most often, though, it's someone taking in a person they knew in the past who is now in a tough situation."

The prior relationship is key, says Project Home founder Sister Mary Scullion, who wants us to be smart about how we help those needing shelter.

"I wouldn't advise people to walk down the street and say to the first random person they meet, 'Come on in!' " she says.

"I myself would hesitate to take a total stranger into my home, because I wouldn't know if that was the best thing for everybody. Yes, wonderful things can happen from that," she says, referring to the McGettigans, "but you also could be placing yourself in danger. We've seen people scammed and harmed.

"In all relationships, it takes time to understand and get to know someone and to develop those relationships of trust."

She suggests that Good Samaritans throw their efforts into the good work already being done by churches and neighborhood organizations providing food and shelter to the needy. Relationships developed in a welcoming community can be transformational.

"They are key," she says. "Through them, we see that we are all alike, and that the homeless are actually us."

polaner@phillynews.com

215-854-2217 @RonniePhilly

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