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I recently sat down for an interview with Rev. Kate Layzer about the Friday Cafe and The Homeless Ministries of the First Church in Cambridge.
Rev. Kate Layzer is a pastor of the United Church of Christ focused on building community with unhoused and food insecure neighbors. She serves at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, where she directs the weekly Friday Café.
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Transcript – Please note, this Transcript is AI Generated. It has not had the discerning ears of a real human to edit it, as such, there are bound to be a few errors
Jimmy Tingle 0:05
Hey everybody, this is Jimmy. Welcome to another episode of the Jimmy tango show. We are so psyched for the holidays ladies and gentlemen, I got the spirit in me and I especially have the spirit in me today, because right now I’m going to introduce to you, Reverend Kate Lazar. She is the pastor of the United Church of Christ focused on building community with unhoused and food insecure neighbors right here in Cambridge. She serves at first church in Cambridge, where she directs the weekly Friday cafe. Ladies and gentlemen, please, without further ado, welcome the one they only the lovely, the talented, Reverend Kate Lazar.
Rev. Kate Layzer 0:43
It’s great to be here. Thank you so much.
Jimmy Tingle 0:45
How are you Kate?
Rev. Kate Layzer 0:46
Doing great doing really well. I’m gonna great December.
Jimmy Tingle 0:50
Great. It’s a busy time of year for the church folks.
Rev. Kate Layzer 0:53
It sure is lots going on. And your church is
Jimmy Tingle 0:56
really, really active and all sorts of social justice causes and tell us about what the first church in Cambridge does.
Rev. Kate Layzer 1:04
We were one of the first churches in our area to become completely LGBTQ affirming. We have been working hard on racial justice issues, a variety of social issues sanctuary during the time that we were really worried during the 2016. And on about immigration issues. We helped family shelter in a local church, all kinds of stuff, but one of the main focuses of our church has been homeless ministries and serving unhoused neighbors.
Jimmy Tingle 1:40
And is there a large homeless population in Cambridge? I mean, I live here I see quite a few folks. But from your perspective, is that the case?
Rev. Kate Layzer 1:48
Yeah, on any given night, there are about 600 unhoused neighbors, some in shelters and some on the street, just in Cambridge, destined Cambridge,
Jimmy Tingle 1:58
600 people. Wow, I had no idea it was that high. And so what does the homeless ministries do?
Rev. Kate Layzer 2:04
There are so many ways of tackling homelessness, and we just address two of those ways. We have a homeless shelter in our basement that has been going since about 1987. It’s 14 beds, it’s men only because we have limited space. But what we’re doing with that shelter is giving men A Place to Land giving folks a place where they have their own bed, they’re safe, they can store their stuff, they can shower, two meals a day, we’re open 365 nights a year, and this shelter is specifically focused on transition. So it’s for guys who are trying to move on to the next step and to get their own housing and get stability.
Jimmy Tingle 2:45
What would you say the average length of stay in the in the transitional shelter is,
Rev. Kate Layzer 2:50
it can be as long as a year or even longer, because even when people have been approved for housing, often the wait is very long. And so a lot goes into just trying to secure housing and to wait for that to come through. We have a housing navigator now through a city church Partnership, which means that we have someone whose whole job it is to try to help people move through and navigate the housing system.
Jimmy Tingle 3:16
And what would you say the background is of these folks? Are they from Massachusetts? Are they from out of state? Are they from other countries? What would you say?
Rev. Kate Layzer 3:25
Massachusetts, most of them are from the Boston area. Some have lived here for a long time. And some have moved here more recently. But people come from all different kinds of backgrounds, many are working many have jobs, they just don’t have keys. And you know, some some have struggles in their background health struggles or mental health struggles or substance use struggles, but some have just had a run of bad luck.
Jimmy Tingle 3:51
What always struck me is I grew up here in the city. And I would see from time to time, and it’s not an isolated incident. I would see kids that I went to grammar school with on the streets. Yeah, I would see kids from the neighborhoods, and I know their history. And I know how things could have had had that gone differently in their childhoods. Yeah, things may have turned out differently. Yeah, they got, you know, some of them just had, you know, alcoholic parents or one parent, no parents. No, you know, nobody home. Literally, some of the circumstances were really, really hard. And, but I would see them and you know, you see them on the street and you don’t know what to do. And I always felt really like I should be doing something for these guys. And I never knew really what to do. What would you suggest is something that people can do when they see people out there asking for money? Do you give money? Do you not give money? I always would stop and talk and say how’s it going and everything and they were always friendly and they didn’t seem like they were in great despair or despondency. But you know, I know that they they prefer not to be in a shelter or on the street. But what do you think the right reaction is?
Rev. Kate Layzer 5:06
It’s an individual choice, but I don’t think it’s ever wrong to give money to people who are on the street. What they do with it is their business if folks are, are, you know, many people have you have phone bills to pay or storage unit bills to pay people, they want the they want to be able to buy, make have their own choices about what they eat, and not necessarily give what’s handed out to them at a soup kitchen. You know, it’s there’s, there’s some dignity and having your own spending money. So I don’t think it’s ever wrong. To do that. Some people prefer to give gift cards, a Dunkin Donuts card or a McDonald’s card for 510 20 bucks, really helps people get out of a cold for a while gives them a place where they have a right to be. And that’s really important, a CVS card, everybody has stuff that they need to buy. So these these are useful and you can donate these kinds of things also to your local shelter or program for His church accepts those kinds of cards as well.
Jimmy Tingle 6:03
I know one of the biggest drivers that I from what I can tell and I know Masson Cass has its own situation done and at the end of it, the other end of Mass Ave. But one of the big problems is I would see kids, one guy in particular who was just got out of jail. And he’s, they don’t give them anything, they get no follow up. You know, you do three years, and then you’re out. And they end up in the shelter. So the shelters are like this. conglomeration of people down on their luck, some with other issues, substance abuse, mental health, whatever. Some are just released from jail, some have lost their job. I mean, so that’s a, that’s one of the biggest problems, isn’t it?
Rev. Kate Layzer 6:47
Yeah, it does seem like we sometimes kick people when they’re down, you know, like folks have served their time. But they’re still serving their time out on the street, right. And under those circumstances, it’s not hard to end up back in jail. So it can feel sometimes like a bit of a revolving door, I sure would like to see more services and systems in place that help people who have served their time, move on and get get reestablished and be able to find work, it’s really very, very hard to pull your life together, when you’re on the street just trying to survive.
Jimmy Tingle 7:21
Yeah, and not even having if you don’t have the simple basic thing, like a driver’s license, or an ID, or, you know, just the simple basic things that you need to live. Just just $100 in your pocket. You know, these folks get released with nothing, and it’s just, it’s not helping them. And it’s not helping the rest of society either.
Rev. Kate Layzer 7:45
Yeah. And where are you going to put your work clothes? If you’re expected to show up, you know, and work a job the next morning? And how are you going to do your laundry? And where are you going to hang your clothes or iron them?
Jimmy Tingle 7:56
Right? Tell me about how the the gentleman in the in the shelter at the church? What is their reaction to the church? Are they grateful? Or do they do they find that in the in the realm of shelters that are positive and a welcoming place to be compared to?
Rev. Kate Layzer 8:12
I think we have a reputation for being one of the nicest places you can land? You know, you you said earlier and I thought this was really helpful, Jimmy that, that a lot of the folks that you know, who who ended up spending some time on the street or folks, you know, have had a traumatic background in some way. And that is something I think that is so little discussed is how how much of homelessness turns out to have a background of trauma. And and the effects the trauma can be very isolating, it tends to turn people into loners because the pain is so great. You’re just holding it in our shelter. Unlike big city shelters, isn’t so traumatizing. People can feel safer. They’re, they’re not being assaulted by people who are having a mental health crisis or you know, are just angry that day. It’s just a safer, more home like environment. We have a small library down there we have, you know, showers and storage space and bunk beds. And it just feels a little bit more like home. It’s a smaller, it’s a smaller environment.
Jimmy Tingle 9:22
And the age group in your shelter, what does that range from? There
Rev. Kate Layzer 9:27
are special services for people who are under the age of 24. So our guests, our general population, and so it could be from mid 20s. Up to to old age.
Jimmy Tingle 9:40
Yeah. And tell me have you ever run into problems like would people show up while intoxicated or under the influence of something or just in a really bad mood and there’s
Rev. Kate Layzer 9:52
definitely and all shelters have that and all shelters are trying to figure out how to you know what, to what degree can we tolerate somebody having an off day. But if it happens more than once in our shelter, we’re sort of just not really equipped to be able to put up with that. And and so that guests will not be able to stay there long term. But we I think everybody understands that life is messy and full of pressures. And so we really try to cut people some slack.
Jimmy Tingle 10:21
Kate and I met for those of you who are watching and listening. About two weeks ago, she was performing a service in Winthrop Park and Harvard Square. For a homeless person, I believe his name was John, who had passed away and nobody knew where he was from no relatives, no trace of, you know his name, well, that we knew his name, but, and he died, like a year ago or something. And he’s been in the morgue for months, if not over a year, they finally contacted I think some family members and they finally were having a service and Denise Jolson from the Harvard Square Business Association, got the people together, because he had lived in Harvard Square for about 20 years, in the, on the streets. And, you know, various places, he apparently, from what I understand in his background, and a nervous breakdown, he was a brilliant guy, who had a nervous breakdown, and could never get back into work life, home, life wanted to be outside. And he slept out in the, in the park. And for years. Anyway, when he passed Denise, you know, very beautifully arranged a funeral service memorial service in the park and Kate did the service. And she was great. And there was some music. And it was really, really a nice, a really nice service and a nice touch to a very tragic life in many ways. But Kate, when you see that type of thing, what do you think we should be doing as a society because one of the things that was encouraging about that the police were there, and the police were there in a supportive way. And the town, you know, a lot of the business owners were there, because they had seen John over the streets for years on the streets, to some of the restaurant owners were there because they had given them food. So all of that was really positive. And do you find the Cambridge community pretty supportive of people like John, but also not sure what to do?
Rev. Kate Layzer 12:29
Yeah, absolutely. I actually think that Cambridge really stands out as special among many communities in that they, they really even the police have policies where they really try not to just push people aside or criminalize their behavior for in the behavior of being homeless. Just to add a couple of details, Jimmy to the story that you told I local funeral home had donated their services for this for this burial. And the Harvard Square Business Association had bought a small plot for John’s ashes in Cambridge cemetery. We were we drove to the, to the cemetery following a hearse. And there was police detail at every single intersection to wave us through I mean, it was really high honor, it was as if this was, you know, a former mayor of Cambridge or it was profoundly moving to me. And it was really because people like Denise jillson had wanted to show honor and respect I think if you start from a place of this is a full human being not necessarily someone whose life I understand, but a person who’s fully worthy of honor and dignity and who has a self and, and loves them. And preferences, just like all of us. Cambridge, really tries to make room for people John had been actually offered a chance to get off the street and he because of his illness, had never felt comfortable accepting that but other people have been offered that opportunity and and have taken it. We we certainly don’t have enough housing in Cambridge. We all know that. In in and nationally, and especially in the Boston area, there’s a housing crisis that’s going on that affects people at the lowest rungs especially hard because it’s really very, very hard to get back up on the ladder if you fallen off it.
Jimmy Tingle 14:35
Right. The funeral home by the way, was the Keefe funeral home if
Rev. Kate Layzer 14:39
I was trying to remember the name thank you.
Jimmy Tingle 14:41
I couldn’t remember it. The Keefe funeral home on Mass Ave. They’re very generous funeral home by the way that I have no other people that they have supported and bent over backwards to help with the with the fees and the costs and everything because it’s not funeral. It’s not cheap to the end of your life. But Oh, great. Do you see a lot of success stories? Do you see people coming through your shelter transitioning and, you know, for lack of a better term successfully transitioning into a more stable lifestyle,
Rev. Kate Layzer 15:13
we see both success and heartbreak. So we’ve we’ve lost folks to overdoses and other other causes of death, who’ve been staying in our shelter. But at the same time, we we’ve we’ve gotten, we’ve we’ve helped a lot of people make that transition this year, we’ve had a lot of, of people getting into housing and celebrating that and just knowing what that means to people. So we’re really grateful. And I know that Cambridge is working really, really hard to house people and to help people. They’ve got lots of caseworkers out there working on this, they’ve got the you know, the Cambridge Housing Authority understands the urgency. And another thing that Cambridge has done that I think is a story that should get wider audience, when the pandemic hit, a lot of meal programs immediately shut down because of the danger. Ours, the the program that I run, which is called the Friday cafe, we were able to pivot and just turn ourselves inside out and be outside on the street. But a lot of folks were really struggling to, to, to maintain services. And meanwhile, restaurants as you know, we’re also in the, you know, in a crisis, during the first days of the pandemic, the city did something absolutely extraordinary, which was that it reached out to restaurants and invited bids, to provide meals. For restaurant prepared meals for folks who had been served by these soup kitchens and these community meal programs. This program was recently just now wrapping up after two and a half, almost three years of pandemic, the city spent over $2 million to make this happen and made all the difference in the world. I don’t know how many cities in Cambridge would have been able to do this.
Jimmy Tingle 17:06
Right? Well, we’re very fortunate in a couple of respects, that people have good. They’re politically very progressive. There’s the political will in the city to do things like that. And the other thing is, we’re financially stable. And we have the resources, the financial resources to be able to do that. And that’s one of the biggest distinctions, I think, with the City of Cambridge, in both respects the political will, but also the financial resources to be able to do something as profound as a restaurant outreach and feeding the homeless for two and a half years during the pandemic. That’s incredible. One of the things I’m looking forward to, on my shows this we’re doing, I’m doing several shows, while three shows at the first church in Cambridge, December 29 30th, and January 1, Kate has helped arrange that. I am so excited to be working in this church, it’s going to be a lot of fun. And what you can do and part of the proceeds are going to go to the homeless ministries. So what you do is you go to Jimmy tango.com, there’ll be you go to buy a ticket for any of the shows that humor for humanity. My holiday shows you on the drop down menu, how did you hear about this show, you click homeless ministries, or you click the a click First Church in Cambridge, to benefit the homeless ministries, and they will get $10. And then there’ll be another additional donation option, when you check out would you like to make an initial donation? And if you want to give more than $10, you are absolutely welcome to do so. And we encourage that, but let me just say the first $10 does not come out of your pocket. The tickets are $30 When you click the homeless ministry when they when you say how did you hear about the show that comes out of our pocket human for humanity, and we we net $20 instead of $30 on the ticket and they get $10 out of that $30 ticket. But then if you want to know a couple more clicks later, make an additional donation. We welcome you and we encourage you. I welcome you. I encourage you, Kate Welcome to the Friday Cafe welcomes you. The homeless ministry encourages you the first church in Cambridge encourages you ladies into the Holy Spirit moving me as I speak. So we’ll have a lot of fun Kate on the on those three days and in December, December 29 December 30 and January 1, New Year’s Day at three o’clock in the afternoon. It’s going to be a lot of fun. All tickets at Jimmy tingle.com. Ladies and gentlemen, how about a round of applause for the one the only Reverend Kate Lazar thank you so much. Kay great job and
Rev. Kate Layzer 19:51
wonderful to talk 20 minutes without talking about the Friday cafe at all.
Jimmy Tingle 19:55
No, you talked about it. Then you talked about the shelter. Okay, tell me k what What exactly is the Friday cafe? Yeah, so
Rev. Kate Layzer 20:02
the other program that we do is called the Friday cafe. It’s a weekly community meal program and we’re doing something a little different most weekly meals. We cook that we the you know, the the program would cook the meal themselves and serve everybody the same thing. We’re doing a huge neighborhood potluck. Every week, neighbors cook the food in their own kitchens, they use a sign up, people bring different courses. And it’s just potluck style. And you so you can you can do your grandmother’s favorite famous stew recipe or your favorite brownies, or whatever it is. And it comes together, it tastes homemade. It’s full of love. People love this model. They love the choice and the variety. We also do clothing, toiletries, sleeping bag, stuff that people need to be able to survive. But the most important thing that we are trying to offer is a sense of warm, welcome, acceptance, community, whatever people are going through, we hope that people will feel that this is their space. Even if they’re ragged, even if they haven’t had a chance to do their laundry or take a shower. We are just trying to be a community gathering place where folks from all walks of life can can get to know each other and sit down and break bread together.
Jimmy Tingle 21:16
Well, as you said, the Reverend came to break bread together. I think in your church, every Friday, apparently is Good Friday.
Rev. Kate Layzer 21:26
Every Friday is Good Friday, and all are welcome. Even if you’re not going through hard times. Just come and hang out with
Jimmy Tingle 21:33
us. That will be cool. I make a mean omelet. Maybe I’ll bring my omelet. But I have to bring it I gotta bring it up for everybody.
Rev. Kate Layzer 21:41
No, absolutely no, just for 10 or 12 people.
Jimmy Tingle 21:45
Great. Well, great to see you. Okay, thank you so much. And I can’t wait to do this shows that the first church in Cambridge on December 29 30th and January 1. Thanks, everybody for joining us for another show. And we will be back later on with more humor for humanity episodes coming up all of December with some of the other partners we’re going to be working with. It’s going to be fun. Thanks. Thank you