Gimme Shelter

Musician once played for the homeless as charity. Now he is homeless.

In these bad times, even good Samaritans are just a step away from tripping into misfortune. Take the case of the piano player who suddenly appeared late last year to play a little music (like Frank Sinatra's "My Way") for the homeless staying at the Interfaith Council's winter shelter program, which feeds and houses 80 men from November through February at various churches. This good-hearted musician is still playing at the shelter, but now he also stays the night.

The piano player is Garrett Collins, a former music director at a local Presbyterian church. Collins says he strolled into the Interfaith shelter at Trinity Episcopal last November looking to help out. He was told he could serve food, but the 55-year-old organist spotted a piano and decided to play some Christmas tunes instead. For the next couple of months Collins followed the roving shelter, which moved from Trinity to St. Mary's Cathedral and then to St. Mark's Lutheran before finally arriving at the First Unitarian Universalist Church. Each night Collins put on a mini-concert, choosing songs based on the mood of the crowd, he says. "When there's a full moon I like to play Chopin's nocturnes," he says. "It really helps [the shelter's people] calm down."

Then in late January, Collins' own life went off the tracks. He says he lost his job at a pharmaceutical company, and was kicked out of the house where he had been staying. After a few nights outdoors he began sleeping at an Interfaith shelter. Since then Collins has added a morning gig to his playing schedule, starting with soft and peaceful pieces before segueing into waltzes and marches as people wake.

Collins sounds surprisingly excited about his homelessness. "I'm kind of on vacation, that's how I look at it," he says.

Fred Thompson, the shelter's site manager, says he has seen more newly homeless people come through the Interfaith program this year than ever before. Collins stood out as a newbie, he says. "I'm telling you the man looked like he was out of place," Thompson says. "Some homeless people, they're laughing and talking. This man couldn't do that with them. He would eat, and then get on the piano."

With the Interfaith Council's winter shelter services coming to an end, Thompson has talked to Collins about moving to Next Door shelter, which is open year-round. Collins, who last week was on his way to a job interview at a restaurant in Fisherman's Wharf, wasn't too concerned about the future. "Who knows?" he says about his plans for after the Interfaith shelter. "I'll just be worried about tonight."

 
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