‘Mailman’ delivers meaningful service to homeless

When people compile a mental checklist of services needed by the homeless, “a place to pick up mail” might not even occur to them, trumped by more obvious concerns such as food, housing, toilets and showers.

But Edmund Rice Christian Brother Charles Avendano knows all about what a mailing address can do for the shelterless, both spiritually and practically. He sees its stabilizing impact every weekday in his ministry as “mailman” at the CBD-based Rebuild Center, the Catholic collaborative behind St. Joseph Church that dispenses a full slate of daytime services to the homeless.

The mail Brother Charles sorts into alphabetized cubbyholes often yields crucial documents that help the homeless get back on their feet – items such as birth certificates, disability checks, veterans benefits and food stamps. Every month, 250 to 300 homeless individuals pick up their mail during the mailroom’s opening hour of 9 to 10 a.m. each weekday.

State photo ID crucial

“They’re very happy when they get their Social Security cards,” said Brother Charles, the Rebuild Center’s postmaster since 2011. “To get a state photo ID in Louisiana, you have to have a birth certificate, a Social Security card and an envelope with your name and address on it,” he explained. “You can’t do anything in Louisiana without a Louisiana ID. If you want to go to Ozanam Inn they’ll let you sleep one night, but if you don’t have an ID, that’s it.

“Or a fellow might come (to the Rebuild Center) to sign up to get mail and all he’s got is a picture ID from the state penitentiary,” he said. “Well, that’s not gonna help him get a job.”

Brother Charles works with the Rebuild Center’s social workers to help the homeless assemble the missing pieces of their ID requirements, work that sometimes involves calling schools and agencies in the person’s hometown, and delving into personal histories involving divorce, remarriage and adoption.

When important documents do arrive, a Rebuild Center volunteer notarizes and files multiple copies in the event the homeless individual loses them or has them stolen. To expedite the photo ID process even more, an NOPD officer who handles issues related to homelessness goes to the Rebuild Center twice a week to drive those who have gathered their paperwork to the DMV.

Brother Charles, who keeps meticulous spreadsheets documenting the daily influx of mail, also watches over a file of unclaimed mail that he calls “dead letters.”

“Once that file gets full, I ship (the dead letters) back to wherever they came from, because I figure if they want mail they’ll come,” Brother Charles said. “The majority of mail (overall) comes from hospitals and ambulance services,” he said. “We have one fellow who has been dead since last March. I just shipped back about eight bills to the hospital and I said, ‘Still Dead.’”

Sent with love

Brother Charles also witnesses the joy that bubbles up when the homeless receive mail from their families. The Rebuild Center has a phone service that allows guests to call anywhere in the United States at no charge.

“They phone home, give their address and their mothers will send them packages,” Brother Charles said. “They wait and wait and wait for the packages – they think it’s gonna be here in three or four days, but it may take two or three weeks. They get boots and socks and long woolen underwear and jackets for the winter. They’re so happy!”

Sometimes the boxes contain pre-paid phones, which outsiders might assume to be frivolous, but which actually assist those trying to get off the streets.

“They’ll read the newspaper and see that jobs are available, but (with a phone) they can call first,” Brother Charles said. “They don’t want to walk four or five miles and find out, ‘Oh we filled that (job) last week.’”

Now a nonagenarian

Brother Charles, who marked his 90th birthday on Oct. 29, is one of three local Edmund Rice Christian Brothers and one of 67 religious brothers currently serving the Archdiocese of New Orleans in 22 orders. He was inspired to become a brother – following the educational charism of Irish-born Blessed Edmund Rice – at age 18, after admiring the work of the religious brothers who operated the school he attended in his native Seattle.

When Brother Charles was assigned to post-Katrina New Orleans in 2007 – following 60 years as a teacher and administrator in five states, and as an ombudsman for nursing home residents in Monterey County, California – the local Presentation Sisters were already providing the mail service, emergency groceries, daily lunch and vital records assistance at the Rebuild Center under the service umbrella of Lantern Light Ministries.

“I looked for something to do and (the Rebuild Center) was it. I met the Sisters and it was love at first sight,” said Brother Charles, who spent his first couple of years slicing meat and cutting up desserts for the weekday lunch.

“They were doing a lot of things here that I knew weren’t being done anywhere else in the country,” he said. “Other places did a lot of talkingabout homelessness, but they didn’t doanything,” he added, describing center services ranging from medical care, to prescription assistance, to locating stable housing.

“(Most homeless people) want to get away from where they are but don’t know where to start,” Brother Charles said. “This is a place where they can take a shower, wash their clothes, get something to eat and then sit down and talk to someone.”

Maternal role model

Brother Charles traces his special connection with the homeless back to his mother, who invited elderly boarders into her home after the Great Depression and took her children to visit indigent families housed in airport barracks in the early 1930s. Among his earliest memories are of the “Hooverville” homeless camps that climbed the hillside near his home.

“It was covered with cardboard tents and tin-roofed buildings, and when the rains came, everything slid down the hill and they’d pick it up and start over again,” Brother Charles recalls. “So I grew up being around (the homeless) and knowing their problems,” he said, calling his longevity “a blessing from God.”

“I’ve got a responsibility to use the graces God has given me for the benefit of others, not just for myself,” Brother Charles said. “I figure as long as my health holds up, I’m willing to do the work.

“I just do what the doctor tells me to do,” he added. “‘Eat less and exercise more.’”

Beth Donze can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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