December 12, 2012

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

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

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.

"He was my field-placement supervisor for a year when I was at Preble Street in the early 1990s," said Brennan, who at the time was studying for his master's degree in social work at the University of New England.

"I think it was a great example of taking the ivory tower to the streets," said Brennan. "That type of rich opportunity for people who are going to school, to be able to also be involved in the community that way, I don't think you can measure the value of that."

Kreisler, according to son David, often bristled at social programs that greeted the needy with means testing and other bureaucratic hurdles before deciding whether to help them.

"Eligibility stuff was all (expletive) to him," said David Kreisler. "If people have a need, you should do what you can to meet it. The door's open."

Which brings us back to the teen shelter. Early next month, it will replace Preble Street's rickety old Lighthouse Shelter for wayward kids, on nearby Elm Street.

The Joe Kreisler Teen Shelter, promises the plaque installed Tuesday near the entrance, will be "a place where acceptance is the rule, and where people truly listen to one another. A place where love stops and stays with them awhile."

Preble Street paid $2.5 million to buy, renovate and furnish the two-story brick building at the corner of Preble Street and Cumberland Avenue. The agency also has $1.5 million socked away to operate the shelter for the next 10 years, and offer expanded hours at its nearby Teen Center.

Every penny came from private donations within Maine, said Swann. The low-profile fundraising effort, he said, took only four months to reach its goal.

Joe Kreisler would have stood up and cheered. Or would he?

"As much as he would have loved all the private funding, he would have been troubled about the absence of public funding," said David Kreisler, who was a social worker before he became a Portland attorney 20 years ago. "Because he would think that the community and government -- all of us -- have a role in making sure the disenfranchised have their needs met."

Tuesday evening, members of this community came together to see Preble Street's latest miracle for themselves. Many had personal memories of Joe Kreisler, while others confessed they weren't quite sure who the man was or what he'd accomplished.

All the more reason to name the place after him. As Swann noted, "It's important to honor not just people of great wealth, but also people who have done great work."

Back when she was a girl, Janice Bailey would walk with her father around the canyons of Manhattan. Invariably, he'd point up at the massive skyscraper at the intersection of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue.

"That's the Chrysler Building," Joe Kreisler would tell his daughter. "But they spelled the name wrong!"

Not this time.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

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