.- In mid-October, Teresa Widman did not know where she was going to sleep, or what she was going to eat. Her diabetes was out of control, and her blood sugar was sky high.
Things looked bleak, and she didn’t see how they would get any better.
Homeless since 2008, she had stayed in shelters in Chicago and other cities before finding her way to the House of Mary and Joseph, a homeless shelter on West Harrison Street operated by Franciscan Outreach. There, she can get dinner in the evening, breakfast in the morning and a bed in between.
Since she can sign up to come back when she leaves in the morning, she has a plastic bin to leave clothing and other possessions in during the day. And with the case management help of Darlene Bell, she has been able to see a doctor, get insulin to regulate her blood sugar and make a plan for dealing with her other health issues.
“I love it to death here,” she said. “Everybody’s friendly. They’ve already really helped me. I’ve been in a lot of homeless shelters, and I can tell this is a good place.”
Now Bell is talking about the next step for Widman: maybe getting her into Franciscan Outreach’s interim housing program, where she wouldn’t have to sign up every day for a bed and would be able to stay in the shelter during the day, doing volunteer work and preparing herself to be successful with a job; or maybe going back to Texas, where she has family.
“One thing I know I want,” Widman said in an interview in Bell’s office. “I want a key of my own, to my own place.”
Franciscan Outreach has been offering direct services to poor people since Franciscan Father Philip Marquard established it in 1963, said Diana Faust, the current executive director. He thought it would be an outlet for secular Franciscans — lay men and women like Faust — to offer service.
The non-profit organization maintains many Franciscan ties, including offering case management services out of St. Peter’s in the Loop and having several Franciscan volunteers, but it welcomes help from anybody, and is open to serving all.
When it was founded its main service was a halfway house for men coming out of prison; now it has the House of Mary and Joseph, a shelter that offers 209 beds for men and 37 beds for women 365 nights a year; a soup kitchen, shower and laundry and the Marquard Center; and case management services that have helped nearly 500 people find permanent housing since 2007, according to case management coordinator Nick Benedetto.
The most recent addition is a new shelter for 65 men that the city of Chicago asked Franciscan Outreach to take over last summer when the previous operator was unable to maintain services. That shelter is paid for by the city, Faust said.
Case managers meet thousands of clients a year, helping them set goals and figure out how to meet them once they are ready — which is usually after they have spent some time connected with the agency, with a bed to sleep in or a regular source of food.
“If you are hungry,” Faust said, “you don’t care about tomorrow. You care about today.”
One thing that makes it unique, Faust said, is its commitment to the gritty work of providing food and shelter on a daily basis to people who otherwise wouldn’t have anywhere to turn.
Other nonprofits have turned more toward transitional housing, for people who are ready to make the leap to permanent housing, because there is more funding available for that, she said. Franciscan Outreach stands ready to take people as they are, even if they aren’t ready to take that kind of a step toward stability, and even if they sometimes make mistakes and wander off the path. The only time people are barred from returning is if they have harmed or threatened someone else.
“We’re not judging them, no matter where they are,” Faust said. “St. Francis accepted people where they were, because everyone is a child of God. These are people with hopes and dreams and goals.”
While it is not a religious organization per se, Faust said, it has two slots for Franciscan friars on its board, and money dropped in the “poor box” at St. Peter’s in the Loop funds Franciscan Outreach’s efforts.
The shelters, she said, are actually busier in the summer, because so many other shelters shut their doors in the warm-weather months. But even if it’s not cold, Faust said, “It’s not safe to sleep under a bridge. It’s not safe to sleep in an abandoned building. There are a lot of people out there who are there to rob and hurt others. People come to the shelter for safety.”
While there, they can also get access to clothing if they need it, showers with toiletries provided, even medical care from staff at Rush Presbyterian Hospital, which has provided volunteer doctors and other staff for a clinic one night a week for 20 years.
Franciscan Outreach operates with a shoestring paid staff and the help of 12 full-time volunteers, who commit a year to the project and live at the Marquard Center, and 2,500 part-time volunteers.
But the work is never easy or well-funded. Faust and the other staff are trying to raise more money this year, putting them in some ways in the same position their clients are, begging for money. This year, she said, the shelter will need to raise about $300,000 more than the $1.8 million that came in last year.
“We’re on the edge,” Faust acknowledged, “just like a lot of them are.”
Shelter client Carroll Holloway stopped for an interview on Nov. 1, the day she was to move into a new apartment. It was the first place she could call home since being evicted from an Edgewater condo in March.
With turquoise nail polish and a jaunty leather cap on long, curly hair — with an upbeat, bubbly attitude to match — many wouldn’t guess how she has struggled.
She was homeless years ago, and Franciscan Outreach helped her then. When she moved into her last apartment, Catholic Charities helped find her a bed. When she got evicted — she believes illegally — she was right back where she started.
For six months, she put her possessions in a shopping cart and spent nights in various hospital waiting rooms or anywhere else she could find that felt safe. When her Social Security check came, she would splurge for a night or two at a hotel — “I wanted that luxury,” she said — but soon would be back on the street.
Someone reminded her of how Franciscan Outreach helped before, and she returned. She was able to save up some money and get some help finding a place to live. She can’t work — she gets disability payments from Social Security — but she plans to resume volunteer work as soon as she can. She also plans to keep in touch with Bell and others at Franciscan Outreach, to help her keep setting goals and taking the steps she needs to meet them.
The worst part about being homeless, she said, is the rainy days.
“Rainy days are bad for us,” she said, momentarily downcast. “You’re standing outside, and you’re soaking wet, and you can’t go home. What do you do?” Bell reminded her that she was going home that day, and she smiled again.
Posted with permission from Catholic New World, official newspaper for the Archdiocese of Chicago.