By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 6, 2018
ATLANTA—When Cathal Doyle and Jessie Bashor walked down the steps of the red brick Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to Central Avenue as newlyweds in 2011 more than a dozen men from the Central Night Shelter greeted them to wish the bride and groom well.
The Atlanta shelter and the men who stay there had a role in their dating from the start.
Doyle saw early in their relationship what their future could look like.
“As we walked from where we parked to Meehan’s pub (on Peachtree Street), every 20, 30 feet there was a homeless gentleman, and it was the summertime, and every one of them would say, ‘Hi Miss Jessie, how are you?’ That was kind of my first insight into the homeless community and the Bashor family relationship,” he said.
For more than three decades, Jessie’s mom, Katie Bashor, served Atlanta’s homeless at Central Night Shelter, an ecumenical ministry of the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Central Presbyterian Church. The mother and daughter spent Sundays there for years.
“It was all I knew. It was what I thought everybody did,” said Bashor.
The elder Bashor died at the age of 59 in 2016.
After a two-year break, the Bashor family is leading the shelter again.
“I kind of felt it was my parents’ life work. Enough time had passed that I felt I just wanted to step up and see it through,” said Bashor, 31. Her eyes were wet with tears as she talked about unlocking the shelter doors at the start of the season with thoughts of her mom. Men bedding down on the mats at the shelter talk about how they miss her mom.
Parishes respond to serve homeless
Once a year advocates make a snapshot study of the number of men and women who are homeless in Georgia’s communities. They hit the streets one night to count people who are living outdoors or in shelters. In the 2017 report, 10,373 women and men were homeless or living in emergency shelters in Georgia, a drop of 25 percent from 2015, according to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. About one-third of men and women on the streets in Georgia lived in Atlanta.
The Central Night Shelter, in the shadow of the Georgia State Capitol building, is one way Catholics respond to people struggling without a roof over their heads. Parishes also react to what they see in suburban communities.
The Gwinnett County Family Promise organization relies on three Catholic churches: St. John Neumann, St. Lawrence Church, and St. Oliver Plunkett Church. The parish groups share responsibilities with other communities of faith to provide overnight lodging for families, home-cooked meals, in addition to resources for financial stability and permanent housing.
Dennis Reich has been the lead organizer for several years of the ministry at St. Lawrence Church.
For him, the housing program is how he shares Jesus’ message. Said Reich, “Now, I don’t have a choice but to share by being the hands and feet of Christ.”
The parish hosts four families for a two-week stretch every year. The work involves some 80 parish members.
“Love is not a feeling. It is an action,” he said. “They see Family Promise as an opportunity to take action.”
St. Andrew Church, Roswell, is expanding its partnership with Homestretch, a local nonprofit that provides transitional housing for families.
Parishioner Maryan Lerch has served with the organization for nearly 20 years. The ministry will offer church members a chance to befriend and serve families, from mentoring about budgets and life skills to apartment remodeling, Lerch said.
One of her favorite tasks is when a family graduates from the program and an apartment is refurbished for the next family.
“I’m prepping a unit for someone to walk in and realize they are home for the first time in, Lord knows how many months. They are secure. It is awesome to see,” said Lerch.
37th season at CNS
Initially located in the gym of Central Presbyterian Church, Central Night Shelter opened for the first time from January to March of 1981. After some years, the shelter expanded to the fellowship hall of the adjacent Shrine. It is now open from November through March.
A late November cold snap filled the 100-bed shelter to capacity with more men than last year at this time. Authorities found a man dead on Tuesday, Nov. 27, in near-freezing temperatures outside a downtown MARTA station.
Ana Bailie served as the shelter director in 2016 and 2017 after Bashor’s death. Looking to return to her role as volunteer coordinator, Bailie was thrilled about Doyle and Bashor agreeing to direct the shelter.
“They stepped up, which was awesome because that was what we all wanted,” said Bailie, who has served at the shelter for 20 years.
A Shrine parishioner, Katie was the volunteer executive director of the shelter for 16 years, following her husband, Mark, in that role.
Shortly after their marriage, Katie began coordinating the numerous volunteers needed to keep the shelter running. Mark served as director. In 2000, he stepped down, and Katie served as its director. Mark lives in Decatur and continues to help with shelter administration.
The shelter was part of Jessie’s growing up.
“My mom always joked she almost had me on the stairs of the shelter, 31 years ago,” she said.
Starting in grade school, Bashor and her late brother helped her parents make sandwiches for the men.
“My dad always worked Saturday night down here and my mom did Sunday so my dad could watch football. I usually came on Sundays with mom.”
Helping the homeless shaped Bashor’s career choice as well. She serves the same population of men that she grew up with at the shelter.
“I knew what kind of hospital I wanted to work at, a public one, where insurance doesn’t really matter,” said Jessie, a trauma nurse at Grady Hospital, a public safety net hospital.
Doyle, 33, who works in the parking industry, said he’s been “gifted” with what the Bashor family fostered at the shelter. His own parents were role models. He said his father was a local politician in his native Ireland who “looked out for those who didn’t really have a strong voice.”
Date nights would bring him to CNS with his then-girlfriend. Soon afterward, he became the “street crew” leader Wednesday nights overseeing the night guests. Doyle proudly said three of the seven overnight leaders are natives of Ireland. He continues volunteering on Wednesdays, admitting he wished his mother-in-law was around to offer advice on challenges in the shelter.
“It’s difficult. It puts memories back in,” he said about the loss.
And their two youngsters have been around the shelter too. The couple’s four-year-old has shown up “more than 50 times,” Doyle said, laughing. Along with picking up administrative tasks, Bashor works “trying to find shelter and child balance,” she said.
The all-volunteer shelter has always conducted a medical clinic to provide over-the-counter medications and a foot clinic to the men served. A Sunday afternoon yoga class was added, in addition to a basketball league, which was Doyle’s idea.
As Doyle pumped up basketballs for Wednesday pickup games, the rap music of Dr. Dre and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” provided the soundtrack in the Central Presbyterian Church gym. It was four on four. Standing 6-feet, 4-inches tall, Doyle purposely did not take shots at the basket, instead he passed the ball to teammates. He gave guys wearing work boots the chance to sink it from the three-point line.
“The legacy that Ana has left behind, Katie has left behind, Mark before left behind, it’s really big shoes to fill,” he said.
Mitchell Parker, a four-year volunteer, worked with Doyle, who first invited him to the basketball games.
“I knew he was a nice guy, but I didn’t know he gave back, to bless other people like he’s been blessed,” said Parker.
Msgr. Henry Gracz, the pastor of the Shrine, said he sees the family legacy continued.
“I was joyfully surprised. The both of them as a young couple have a tremendous amount of energy, have a commitment to their young family and to the poor. It is really pretty amazing.”
“The words of wisdom would have come from her mother and father—everyone has human dignity.”