This has been a very busy week at the Joseph House Crisis Center. More than 50 families came seeking financial assistance, many in regards to housing.
When housing needs are on the line, we can’t delay in responding – especially when the weather is cold.
A house does more than provide protection from the elements, however. It’s where family life takes root, where each member finds the stability to grow and prosper.
Studies show that stable housing leads to better parenting, better grades and less absenteeism at school, and less health problems. Stable housing creates better outcomes across the board.
When families are evicted, so much is lost.
Miranda is one person that the Joseph House was able to assist recently. Each person’s story is unique, yet there are similarities. If there’s a lesson we can draw from our experience it’s that life doesn’t always go as planned. Anyone, at anytime, might need the help of others.
Miranda had cancer surgery several weeks ago. It was successful, but unfortunately she lost her job because she wasn’t able to work during her recovery. Miranda has a ten-year-old son. She is looking for a new job, but the bills come in fast. An eviction notice soon landed at the top of the pile.
Miranda came to the Joseph House, where a volunteer spoke with her and verified her need. We sent money to the landlord, buying time for Miranda to get back on her feet. As always, we responded quickly, directly, with no red tape.
Our concern for those in need makes us aware of our blessings. It also calls us to action. The Joseph House depends entirely on the private support of people who wish to show their care and compassion for others.
According to the Census Bureau, 43.1 million people in the United States live in poverty. Of these, about 19.5 million live in deep poverty, which means their household income is less than 50% of the poverty threshold.
Furthermore, 105 million people live close to being in poverty. Their household incomes are above the poverty threshold, but they experience various degrees of insecurity in acquiring food, housing, utilities, and other necessities.
Poverty is something that affects a lot of people. What can we do to help?
The Catholic Campaign for Human Development offers two suggestions that anyone can do at anytime. They are good starting points:
Choose your words wisely. Using derogatory terms and/or making generalizations about people who are living in poverty works against people who are trying to get back on their feet. Instead, talk with people who are struggling and listen to their stories.
Show respect. Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation. Be respectful of people’s occupation and considerate of all types of workers we encounter every day.
Here’s an example to consider: when we sit down to eat, it is likely that many people at the lower end of the economic ladder were involved in providing our food, from the fields to the store.
Let our words and behavior show the respect that is due to all persons. From this foundation, an open heart leads to an open hand – a hand of welcome, a hand to help someone up.
The following was written by Bishop Kenneth Edward Untener (1937-2004), who served as the bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw:
Helping the poor is not always a pleasant experience.
It’s no picnic helping the poor. There is often no feeling of fulfillment. It’s work — like a lot of virtue is work — like taking care of an elderly parent is work.
The poor, as fate would have it, are just like us. They are mixtures of virtues and vices. Like us, they are not always grateful. Like us, they don’t always trust. Like us, they don’t always respond. Like us, they are both generous and greedy. Like us, they are sometimes wonderful and sometimes awful. Whatever happened to the noble poor? Some are out there, but mostly they are in Charles Dickens.
The “poor” poor are not always so noble, and they are the hardest to deal with — which is probably why we don’t.
Mental note: When you help the poor, you always receive more than you give — but it may not seem that way at the time.
A prison can keep someone locked in, and also locked out.
In Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, the protagonist, Jurgis Rudkus, finds himself homeless, destitute, and ravenously hungry. He staggers up and down the city streets looking for work, fighting hunger-induced fatigue. His struggle is to no avail: he is a prisoner, trapped in a type of reverse prison. As Sinclair explains,
“Everywhere he went, from one end of the vast city to the other, there were hundreds of others like him; everywhere was the sight of plenty — and the merciless hand of authority waving them away. There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside.”
Excluded from society, not welcome anywhere, Rudkus is confined to the forgotten shadows. It’s easy for us to keep the poor and homeless locked in this sort of prison. We go about our lives, preoccupied with our own concerns, never seeing the poor because we avoid them. Mentally, if not physically, we shut them out from the world in which we choose to live.
Each of us has a key to this prison. The first door to unlock is the one leading to the heart. After that, we need to take a look at how we live. Ask God for help: He will open our eyes and opportunities to love the poor will present themselves. The doors we kept locked — out of fear? ignorance? prejudice? — will be in our power to open.
As a friend of the Joseph House, you already have an active concern for the well-being of people in need. With your support, we welcome the poor as our brothers and sisters and share with them the essential goods they are lacking. The Joseph House Crisis Center helps numerous families every week with food, rent, utility bills, and the like.
The Joseph House Workshop, which opened 12 years ago this month, provides personalized and in-depth assistance for up to eight homeless men at a time. The goal is to help these men learn the skills they need to find gainful employment and live independently. We’re not ones to toot our own horn, but the Workshop is doing a great job.
For homeless men, the Joseph House Workshop is an open door to a new life. It maintains a healthy, substance-free environment and is staffed 24 hours a day. Residents can live there for as long as two years (click here for more details about the program). Here is a report from the Workshop Director, Dr. Art Marsh, and the Resident Program Manager, Mr. Rudy Drummond:
We currently have all are beds filled or committed to be filled. We have seven residents housed at this point. One resident is in the most senior phase of the program, which requires considerable achievement. Four of our residents are about to begin Phase 2 (seeking employment). We currently have two residents about to enter Phase 1. We are awaiting another resident coming to us from Eastern Correctional Institution, who we anticipate will be joining us the end of this month.
One of our recent graduates, who enrolled in the Armed Services, will be returning to us for a brief visit before shipping out to his assigned station in South Korea. Several of our other successful graduates visit the Workshop periodically to confirm their on-going successes.
The Workshop is in need of volunteers to teach various aspects of Phase 1 life skill topics. The commitment would be for a one hour time period one to two days a week in the afternoon. It is our pleasure to note that all the successful residents, past and present, manifest a continued deep appreciation for all that the Workshop and the Little Sisters have given them.
God’s blessing has nurtured this ministry from the beginning. We’ve been told that the Workshop has quietly garnered an excellent reputation around town. This is due to the dedication and quality service supplied by the staff. You’re also key to the success: your generosity alone keeps the Workshop afloat. Thank you!
Your generosity also makes the Crisis Center a refuge for people in need.
Tracey, 34, has three children and was working two jobs, but then she relapsed into alcoholism. She said stress was the reason she started drinking again. Tracey found a better reason for stopping — her family — and has been sober for six months. She is trying to repair the damage that was done, and that includes getting the electricity turned back on in her home. The Joseph House paid $200 toward Tracey’s delinquent electric bill.
Howard, 59, is also trying to reclaim his life from alcoholism. He had his last drink a month ago while he was still homeless. Howard found a place to stay in a halfway house, but to continue living there he must pay rent. We agreed to send over $200. Howard opened up to one of our volunteers and talked about his childhood abuse and his current struggles with anxiety and depression.
Laura, 51, is a simple and humble woman. She lives alone and recently lost her job working in a restaurant kitchen. Her new job will be in a fast-food establishment. In the past month Laura earned $600. She paid some of her essential bills and was short on the $400 rent. We paid $200 to her landlord to stop the eviction.
When we die, we all hope St. Peter will open the Pearly Gates for us. How wonderful that will be, to be welcomed into God’s house, where there are many dwelling places and one prepared for each of us (John 14:2). Our exile will be at an end. In the meantime, let’s do what we can to help people who feel left out today.
As always, we hold you in our hearts each day in prayer. May you be blessed with happiness and peace.
In an online world, there is still a place for personal contact.
Our help at the Joseph House is given person to person, in the flesh. This way we get a grasp of the details that cannot be conveyed in an e-mail, details that help to express the uniqueness of each person and the many sides to his or her circumstances.
Person to person, we see the missing teeth and the shoes held together with duct tape. We see the mismatched clothes that came from the donation bin. We see arthritic hands and swollen ankles and feeble legs that need the assistance of a cane. We see calloused skin rough as sandpaper from years of hard work in the sun. We hear words slurred in a haze of alcohol. We hear broken English and uncouth grammar and slang. We hear wisdom and sobbing, whispering and yelling.
Person to person, we see faces, and the windows of the soul, the eyes: blood-shot eyes, eyes filled with tears, eyes flaring in anger, nervous eyes that flit about, eyes clear and bright, and eyes that refuse to make contact with our own. Up close, we also detect the smell of unwashed skin that comes from living outside in beastly hot weather, the sharp mustiness that clothes pick up from decaying houses, and the acrid odor that comes from looking in garbage cans for food.
Most importantly, person to person, we experience the person, and not just the eviction notice or the overdue electric bill or the other bits of fallout from poverty. We can reach out and touch someone, and not just figuratively. Simple human contact shoulders many a burden.
The greatest poverty is to feel alone, unloved, and unwanted. Face to face, person to person, we give and receive the gift of each other’s presence. We can meet Christ waiting for us to love Him in the poor, waiting for us to wake up from our indifference, waiting for us to overcome our fear and prejudice, waiting for us to open our heart to the person in front of us.
René Voillaume, who helped to start the Little Brothers of Jesus, once gave a series of conferences about religious life. These were compiled in a book, and our founder, Sr. Mary Elizabeth, had the following passage underlined:
“We must again consider what is implied by the notion of the ‘poor one.’ The poor person is one who has nothing but his human dignity. He has nothing which can hide this essential dignity, nothing that can create an illusion, nothing that others can love in him except himself. Seldom, if ever, do we have occasion to love in others that which they would be in reality, if stripped of all they have acquired.”
Voillaume went on to say:
“Here we grasp the mystery of the human person and understand that really and truly we do not love men; we love what they give, what they appear. How often we say that someone is grand, wonderful, delightful and cultured! But do we say we love the poor person who has no charm, nothing to say because he is too much taken up with his work and the countless worries that beset him in daily life?”
God gave Sr. Mary Elizabeth the grace to love the poor, and she nurtured this grace throughout her life. She never hesitated to love people in their naked humanity. Sister wrote about one experience she had, when she went to visit a young man serving time in prison.
“He turned his face from me in the penitentiary visiting room. He was very young, tall and filled with hate, especially towards white ‘honkies.’ His face was hard and defensive in every aspect. I looked at him and loved him because he needed love so badly. ‘You need not talk to me if you choose not to. I just want to tell you I have seen the Warden and have gotten your friend out of solitary, I hope all goes well. If anything else bothers you or goes wrong just let me know. Goodbye.’
“As I rose to go and he realized I wanted nothing from him — not even recognition — that I had helped to bring about something he wanted very much, he reached across and shook my hand. Our eyes met. ‘Lady, this is the first time in my life I ever touched white skin without getting the creeps.’ I smiled — gave him the black brotherhood handshake — and departed.
“As I turned in leaving he stood with the first smile I had ever seen on his face. At that moment I shared with him the great degradation he had suffered from whites, and I flew to the car in tears.”
Voillaume, René. Vita Evangelica 4: Religious Life in Today’s World. Translated by Catherine Ann MacDonald, C.N.D. Ottawa: Canadian Religious Conference, 1970.
The mission of the Joseph House is to work for social justice, stabilize family life, and help the poor in their needs, whatever they may be.
Each person we assist is different. Each person has a particular story and unique circumstances. Sometimes when “the poor” are discussed, such as in public debates, they are considered as if they belong to one anonymous, faceless group. But anyone who has spent time in direct human services to people in need understands that this is not true.
Rev. Larry Snyder, the former president of Catholic Charities USA, makes an excellent observation of this point in his book, Think and Act Anew: How Poverty in America Affects Us All and What We Can Do about It. Here is what he wrote:
Not All Poor People Are Equal
It is easy to think of the poor as a homogenous, monolithic bloc with an unending thirst for public assistance. Nothing could be further from the truth. But that’s how our government is structured to address poverty and thus the way government defines poverty.
We must not forget that these are individual human beings, each with hopes and dreams. They can, however, be grouped into several categories defined by their life experience, rather than solely by their economic status.
1). People who need help but lack the skills and abilities necessary to succeed in the work world—possibly because of a lack of education, experience, and cultural and social skills. These are often the inter-generational poor.
2). People who need help but have a limited ability to care for themselves because they are sick or have physical or mental limitations that make it difficult or impossible to provide for their basic needs. Children and the elderly are likely to fall into this category.
3). People with skills and experience but who still need help, possibly because they are limited by their circumstances, such as the current economic downturn with its foreclosures and millions of lost jobs. This could include the many thousands of underemployed working well below their skill levels.
People who are poor are not equal in their needs. They need services that listen and respond to them as individuals.
They are equal in human dignity. In fact, they are the ones promised the Kingdom of Heaven (Luke 6:20). Our service to them is a privilege.
Image: archival photograph from the Joseph House Crisis Center.
To walk forward, we place one foot in front of the other. The walk toward social justice in the world requires the same effort.
Two feet are needed for this movement: one is “Direct Service” and the other is “Social Change.” Both are needed to achieve justice, both are needed to stay balanced.
Direct Service addresses the needs of people here and now. When a person is suffering, when he or she is cold, hungry, or homeless, we cannot tell that person to wait. Sr. Mary Elizabeth, the founder of the Joseph House, once said, “If a man comes in and tells you he has no job and hasn’t eaten in two days, you don’t give an in-depth analysis of his socio-economic hang-ups. You give him a bag of groceries and a dollar if you have it. If you don’t have a dollar, you keep asking people you know until someone gives it to you.”
There are many ways we can directly serve the needs of the poor. Here are a few examples that call for our support:
food drives and food banks
instruction on tenant rights
transportation for the sick and elderly
job skills training
Social Change involves changing structures and removing the causes of poverty and other social problems. This type of work seeks to educate people and bring them together. Its action must be non-violent; otherwise, there is the risk of replacing one oppressor with another.
Here are ways to work for social change:
read about and critically evaluate the issues
register to vote and then vote
through letter writing and boycotts, change corporate policies that hurt the poor
participate in peaceful protests to help give voice to the voiceless
write to legislators on behalf of the poor and marginalized
use public forums (letters to the editor, social media) to educate others about the needs of the poor and the reality they face
The goals of social justice are to reduce poverty, protect human rights, and promote peace. We can only make this journey using “both feet.” In all that we do, the advice of St. Paul will serve us well: “Conquer evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
The photograph shows the sandals that belonged to Sr. Mary Elizabeth. She left them pretty worn out in her work for justice.