The conversation that unfolds every Friday morning over eggs and toast around a corner table at Denny’s in Laurel can range from cooking to sledding to Bible study — but to some the casual exchanges are a lifeline.
Daniel Thorpe of Laurel said the connections he has made through First Friends Breakfast, a ministry of five men mostly from Bethany Community Church who meet at the restaurant with men who are homeless or struggling financially, have been a source of hope in recent weeks. The group began in 2013.
“The main thing is to surround yourself with positive people,” said Thorpe, 46, an out-of-work home improvement contractor who attended breakfast at Denny’s on Jan. 9. “It’s a support group.”
Thorpe said his life began to unravel in October, after he crashed his truck driving home from work late one night. Within weeks of the accident, he said he’d lost his job because he had no transportation, then he lost his apartment because he couldn’t afford the rent. As he looks for work, Thorpe now sleeps at Laurel-area churches along with other homeless men and women, as part of the Winter Shelter program run every winter by area religious organizations.
Hank Crosswhite of Laurel, a Bethany Community Church member who started the breakfast group in 2013, said First Friends currently meets with about 10 to 12 men, and he estimates the group has reached about 24 men since it started. He said the men find their way to the breakfast table via word-of-mouth or referrals from church members or social workers.
“What we like to do is lift people up to a different level,” said Crosswhite, 68. “The reason a lot of people are in this situation is broken relationships.”
Crosswhite said he realized, after talking with men Bethany Community Church helps, that people need friendship just as much as they need food and shelter. He said he’s found that part of the reason people find themselves living on the edge is because they’ve lost touch with their support network for one reason or another. He said the purpose of First Friends — which pays for breakfast via the church — is to help restore the men’s relationships.
“To me it means a lot,” said Tom Michieka, 60, of Laurel, a former security guard who said he has been out of work since his leg was amputated in 2012 due to complications from diabetes. “I was always alone at home.”
Michieka, who has a place to live, said he looks forward to the Friday meetings because it’s a place to share stories and see other people.
“This is my family — Bethany and the people here are my family,” said Eddie Fladung, 68, of Laurel who has been living with Crosswhite since December after a series of events left him homeless and with nowhere to go.
Fladung, a former construction worker, said his apartment building in downtown Laurel closed down in October, and he was house sitting for an acquaintance when he fell and ended up in the hospital with a broken ankle and broken ribs. He said he remained in the hospital three months after catching pneumonia there.
“Life comes at you fast,” said Edward Jackson, 76, of Beltsville, a member of the Beltsville Seventh-day Adventist Church who said he wants to help those in need because he knows anyone could be just one misfortune away from losing everything. “Just trying to help each other out.”
Jackson said many people think of homeless people as the “stereotypical bums” who live in cardboard boxes and are addicted to drugs, but the reality is more complicated. He said he offers the men job leads when he has them, and otherwise tries to keep their spirits up.
Thorpe said he was applying to any job he could find after he first became homeless, but feels discouraged because nothing has panned out. He said he can’t get the low-level jobs he applies for because of his background and experience as a contractor — but he can’t get any home improvement jobs without a working vehicle.
“I’m applying for the menial jobs because I need anything, but they know I’m not there for a career washing dishes,” he said. “It’s a lot worse than I ever thought it would be.”