“How long have you been at the shelter?” I asked.
“Eleven years,” he said.
Most of us can’t imagine spending even one night in a homeless shelter, but this man has been doing it for 11 years. He leaves during the day to go to his job at a self-serve car wash, which he has also had for 11 years, but when you factor in transportation costs to get to the job, he doesn’t clear enough money to have a place of his own.
He’s a good man, one of about 10 that I met this summer who are part of a small group at our Catholic Charities’ 801 East shelter, which provides 380 beds every night. The good news is that these men have a roof over their heads, warmth in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, a bed with clean sheets, access to showers, and a meal. I believe the meal is less than adequate, but is better than nothing at all.
Back in May, I began meeting with this group of men every other week to hear directly from those who are homeless and to learn more about the difficulties they face and how we might better help them. They come each time with excitement and energy, sharing their life stories and their hurts, as well as their desire to move on from shelter life to one of independence.
Each has a different story. There’s the man who works at the car wash. Another man has challenges related to a disability. A few others are from our rehabilitation program, which is a small group that goes through a six-month rehabilitation to overcome addiction to drugs or alcohol. I can tell you that they are all making progress, but they also worry that when their six-month program is over, they will have no place to go to begin their lives over again. They desperately do not want to come back to the shelter.
All have a desire for a job that provides enough income for themselves and their loved ones, and enables them to get a place to live. There are various reasons why they struggle to find employment. Sometimes the problem is addiction, while other times it is mental health issues. It may be a criminal record, often something that happened long ago when these men were teenagers or young adults that is still an obstacle to employment decades later.
These meetings are a real blessing. Not only do I learn more about them as individuals and the struggles they face, but it’s also an attempt to see what might happen if we were able to give more individual attention and help to those in need. I'm convinced that the real key to moving people from poverty to sustainability is to give them access to someone who cares, a social worker, coach or mentor to walk with them, teach them, and encourage them.
Here’s one small example from my meetings with these men. One of the things we did early on was find out how many of them had a valid form of ID, either a Social Security card or something else. About one-half did not. Having an ID is something most of us take for granted, but without one, you can’t get a job or housing. Through our Catholic Charities Legal Network, lawyers generously offered their services pro bono to help these men secure proper IDs. It was a small but significant step in moving them forward.
I’ve learned a lot from my meetings with these men, perhaps most importantly how much they are just like me. Our lives may be different in terms of experiences and opportunities, but we are all looking for ways to move forward, and we all need some help and support along the way.
We often say at Catholic Charities that we want to give help that empowers and hope that lasts. I see this every day. To all of our homeless and housing staff, I am so grateful for all that you do. I’m hopeful that we will soon be able to have more social workers and mentors work with these men, and all those in need, in more direct and lasting ways, moving them toward their hearts’ desire to be self-sustaining and independent.
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