Last spring, volunteers started providing showers at St. Catherine-St. Lucy Church to newly arrived asylum seekers living at the District 15 Police Headquarters on Madison in Austin. We used unused space in the former rectory at the church. The water bill went from almost nothing to $4,000 a month.
The program expanded to meet the needs of our guests and now includes clothing and toiletry distribution, breakfast, a safe place for toddlers to play while their mothers take in other services.
And, more recently, doctors from Loyola and MacNeal hospitals. Many of the children arrive with chronic intestinal disorders. A lot of coughs and fevers. Lots of guests have unfilled prescriptions.
Then in the last two months, the whole thing went on steroids. What was 30-40 guests living in tents at District 15 became 100-250 guests visiting St. Catherine’s each program day. The water bill skyrocketed to over $10,000.
What was a nice local volunteer opportunity began to look more like a tech startup. We need capacity building. The logistical issues would be the envy of any business school case study.
And the needs continue to change. Because many guests transitioned from District 15 to the Oak Park YMCA or Carleton Hotel, they no longer need our showers.
And the weather keeps getting colder. We need more chaqueta. Jackets. Or better abrigos de invierno. Winter coats! (small and medium/male and female). Zapates. Shoes. Not the ones big-footed Americans wear, but size 7 women. Size 8 and 9 men. All the small sizes! Sweat suits (small and medium/male and female). Lots of underwear, especially toddler sizes.
And if you stimulate the supply of winter clothes, then cadres of volunteers are needed to process the clothes. This past Monday at St. Catherine’s over 40 volunteers processed 100 bags of donated clothing, including the very high-demand winter coats.
So my new mantra? Donating winter clothes is good; processing winter clothes is priceless. And some well-intentioned people are still donating Bermuda shorts, God bless them! By the way — true story — earlier today at St. Catherine’s, I spoke with a young smiling man in bright yellow Bermuda shorts. His only pants. The temperature was 45 degrees. We set him up with long pants.
And if, in the beginning, the guests came from District 15, how about today?
We are seeing people from shelters around Chicago, including new arrivals to District 15. To get winter clothing, they are coming from shelters in Pilsen, Hyde Park, Rogers Park. Even O’Hare Airport, Terminal 1, United Airlines.
And you won’t believe this: we even had a few Guests from Indiana. They are not just from Venezuela but also, in smaller numbers, from Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala.
Volunteers invariably ask: “Why isn’t (fill in the blank) doing more to solve this problem?” From federal to state to local politicians (even though Oak Park elected officials and village staff have been exemplary in responding). They ask, “Why aren’t Catholic and other churches in Chicagoland doing more?” And sometimes they want to talk about the politics of immigration.
I wave them all off. I say that’s above my pay grade. Waiting for Elvis to arrive in the building is futile. No deus ex machina. Only us.
If an 18-month-old arrives at St. Catherine-St. Lucy in Crocs and a tee shirt and the forecast is 20 degrees, we put a coat on her. And boots. And gloves. And a hat.
That’s what proximity does. That’s where we are at.