A lifetime of helping the poor

“Henry, this check is made out to the county. Shouldn’t it be made out to me?”

“Henry, can I get two bus passes?”

“Henry, the coffee machine is leaking.”

Henry Krewer sits in the worn chair in the cramped office where he spends his days, dealing with seemingly endless questions and complaints. He has done this for a decade now. He is 80 years old. He looks tired.

“I am tired,” he said. “It’s time for me to be cutting back.”

This month, Krewer will step down as mission coordinator of the Corpus Christi Homeless Shelter, 525 Americana Boulevard. Considering all he does there, the title is modest. Krewer co-founded the day shelter in 2003 and has overseen almost every facet of its operation since then, from finances and administration to personally easing the burdens of homelessness. Need a ride, a meal, emergency money? Someone to fix a problem, be an advocate, break up a fight? See Henry.

He estimates that 100 people a day have used the shelter’s services since it opened in December, 2003. Krewer and his wife, Kathy, have been there almost every day of that time. She keeps the books, makes runs to the Idaho Food Bank and helps out in myriad other ways. If not for the Krewers, countless people would have gone hungry and not had a safe place to get in out of the cold. They don’t just talk about helping their fellow man. They do it  – six days a week, without pay.

I met them in 2002. A homeless man had drowned in the Boise River, and Henry Krewer wanted to talk to me for a story about what was and wasn’t being done for the city’s homeless population. He and Kathy were serving meals  at Community House then, and working to build what would become Corpus Christi House. His next stop after our interview was for a sleeping bag to give to a homeless man sleeping outside while dying of cancer.

It made an impression. When I retired from The Statesman three years ago, I joined the many volunteers who help keep Corpus Christi running. My contribution is small – a couple of mornings a month – but it’s been enough to learn how much the shelter means to those who need it.

I’ve seen people shivering after a winter night on the streets, grateful beyond words for a warm bagel and hot coffee. I’ve seen the gratitude on the faces of those desperate for a ride to a job interview or a doctor’s appointment as they joined one of the Krewers in their 8-year-old Toyota Prius. Time and again, I’ve seen Henry Krewer respond to an urgent request by reaching for his wallet and handing over his own money.

His response to those who say the homeless are loafers who live off of handouts:  “You can say that about any group of people, and you’d be right some of the time.”

He himself grew up poor in a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. He became a Franciscan brother and says that “everything I am I owe to them. But I was limited to teaching, and I wanted to work with poor people.”

He moved to Canada and worked at a school where he met his future bride, then found a job “helping poor native people stand on their own two feet and get an education. I was very content there. But then Canada tightened up on immigration so we came back to the states.”

In 1976, the Krewers moved to Boise, where Henry became a chemistry and physics teacher at Bishop Kelly High School. (He has degrees in biology and endocrinology.) He was known as a tough teacher, which he defines as “having high expectations.” He worked as a soup-kitchen volunteer in his free time and in 1996 retired from teaching to devote the rest of his life to helping the poor.

“It makes me be real,” he said, his Brooklyn accent still palpable. “Saying you’re a Christian and living it are two different things.”

“… I’ve formed many friendships among the homeless. There are things we can do here for them and things we can’t. … We give them a home base, a place where it’s easy to be good.”

There are, he says, two kinds of homelessness. One is temporary – people who lose jobs and homes and need help before getting back on their feet. “Those people come and go here, and that’s a good thing. I just got a call from one who used to be here and is in Kansas now. He just got his contractor’s license and wanted to hire somebody from Corpus.”

Others are chronically homeless. Corpus Christi works with various agencies to help give them housing and continued support. Citing Utah,  which now saves several thousand dollars a year per homeless person by providing them with housing rather than operating shelters, he hopes for a time when Boise no longer needs shelters.

Until then, he’ll continue to volunteer at Corpus Christi “six days a week, but for a shorter time each day.” Marc Schlegel, a Mennonite pastor, will take over his post as mission coordinator. (The shelter is non denominational.)

“He gets it,” Krewer said. “He knows, as I do, that there’s a great satisfaction in doing this. It’s the difference between just going to church and living your faith.”

 

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on http://www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

 

 

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