December 12, 2012

Bill Nemitz: Portland teen shelter a testament to 'average' Joe

By Bill Nemitz

Some frigid night this winter, it will happen. One of the two dozen homeless kids at the Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter will look out at the ice, the snow, the anything-but-friendly darkness and ask, "Who was Joe Kreisler?"

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Joe Kreisler

John Ewing / Staff File Photo

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"He was just a guy, really," replied David Kreisler, Joe's son, this week as workers put the finishing touches on the shelter at 38 Preble St. "But he always cared about the community."

Added Janice Bailey, Joe's daughter: "He was just the sweetest, sweetest man."

Joe Kreisler, for the record, was the founder of what is now known simply as Preble Street -- the social services agency in Portland that for more than a quarter-century has reached out and caught the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill and others whose lives are in free fall.

But to truly understand what made the man tick, consider what he said in an interview with this newspaper a few years before he died in 2002 at the age of 82.

"I'm a human being," said Kreisler. "Part of my job, part of being alive, is making sure that other people are, too. There is always some poor person out there who needs something."

These days, talk like that can set off a cyber storm of criticism from those who hear "poor people" and think "cycle of dependency," or "culture of entitlement," or some other far-right catch phrase that equates lack of resources with lack of character.

No matter. Joe Kreisler, if he were still around, would say it anyway.

He came to Portland in 1972 to teach social work at the University of Southern Maine. But he was a rabble rouser long before that.

Growing up on the streets of Yonkers in the 1930s, a son of "old-country" Jewish parents, Kreisler once stomped into a police station to demand the return of a football that police had confiscated from him and his friends during a pickup game on the street. His objection: The cops had violated his 14th Amendment right to due process.

Another time, upset at the low wages he received at his father's soda pop factory, young Joe picketed the plant with a sign proclaiming, "My Father Unfair to Organized Labor."

Actually, Joe's father was anything but anti-labor. One Saturday, on their way to get groceries and buy Joe a toy, his father came across a picket line of striking workers and, just like that, joined the line.

"Dad's over there making a fool of himself," Joe muttered to his mother. "And I'm not getting anything!"

Then there was the time in 1964 when The New York Times ran a piece about Mobilization for Youth, a program for poor people that Kreisler ran at the time on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The project, declared the Times, was "a hotbed of Communism."

Joe took that as a compliment.

In short, Kreisler's life centered not just on talking about what he thought was right, but, more importantly, rolling up his sleeves and doing something about it.

Thus it made perfect sense when, upon coming to USM to teach under his longtime friend and mentor John Romanyshyn, Kreisler insisted on taking his students out of the classroom and onto the streets of Portland.

Out of that avant-garde "lab" work, the High Street Resource Center was born. Then, in 1985, it moved to and became Preble Street.

Executive Director Mark Swann, who still remembers Kreisler offering him his job via a balky answering machine in 1991, estimates that more than 400 social work students have cycled through Preble Street over the decades. Most of them, including Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, worked directly under Kreisler's tutelage.

(Continued on page 2)

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