Thankfulness in the midst of homelessness

The guests, volunteers and staff at the St. John shelter have at least one thing in common

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Back on Friday the 13th, the second Friday in November, a 33-year-old man named Chris talked about being thankful after finishing his dinner at the Housing Forward (formerly PADS) emergency homeless shelter at St. John Lutheran Church in Forest Park. He is a single parent raising two boys and a girl — age 6, 5, and 4 — with his only income coming from a part-time job.

"Right now life is challenging," he said. "I have my ups and downs. Some days are better than others, trying to get out of this situation and find home, trying to get better things for my kids."

In the midst of a depressing situation, however, Chris found many reasons to be thankful. 

"It's been rough, but I'm in good hands with a good organization. The people in Housing Forward are wonderful. They're helping me and my children get back on our feet. I'm so grateful that God put the right people in my life at this time of need. Without them I don't know where I'd be right now."

The help he has received from the Housing Forward staff and volunteers seems to have given Chris the ability to look to the future with hope. 

"I'm working part-time right now," he said, "but with the holidays coming up, I am confident I will get some full-time work. I try to keep my head high and keep moving forward because I know better things are coming along for us."

After finding a mattress on the gym floor, a guest named Tim said, "I'm thankful for this church, the support of Housing Forward and the whole PADS organization because otherwise I'd be sleeping in Dunkin Donuts. [Housing Forward] helped me get my Link Card, a simple thing to others, but for me it's huge. I have COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and afib [Atrial fibrillation]. I got a bag full of medication by my mattress. Thank God I have this organization.

Many of the "guests" at the shelter thanked the people from Oak Park who were serving a dinner that included salad, chicken, spaghetti, fried rice and dessert. But the members of the Thai church also expressed gratitude for being able to serve the homeless.

Amy Morton, a member of Ascension Catholic Church and the Housing Forward site captain on the second Friday of the month, said, "For me, volunteering here makes homelessness feel real and very possible. There are a lot of people here who had everything going their way, and they became homeless. For me it's 'there but for the grace of God go I.' I could be here too. It makes me grateful for my safety net, grateful for my family and all the connections I have."

"I know numerous families with alcohol, mental health, and employment challenges," explained Maureen Crotty, another member of Ascension and a longtime shelter volunteer. "PADS enables me to be part of a solution by providing the essentials of food and shelter. I am deeply grateful that on the second Friday of the month I can be a part of a supportive, caring network."

Several young people came with their parents to volunteer at the emergency shelter. Audrey Benzkofer is 8 years old and a member of Ascension Catholic Church, and her brother, who is 12, both admitted to being nervous the first time they volunteered, but "The rest was pretty fun," Said Audrey. Sam added, "It made me think that however tired I was, these people were 10 times more tired and they had a lot worse week than I had, even if I had a terrible week."

Lars and Gus Viise are members of the Village Church and came to work at the shelter with their mother, Laura. Lars, who is 12, said, "I had the privilege to be born to a family where my parents could afford to have three meals a day and a good education for me. These people were born with disabilities or come from bad neighborhoods where they are not able to get the education they need. I'm really happy to help people get back on their feet and get jobs. These people are not as lucky as me, so I want to help them."

Gus, who is 16 and a student at Walther High School, said that part of his motivation for volunteering was that Walther requires students to put in service hours but there's more to it. "It's kind of a humbling experience," he said. "It's a special thing."

The experience affected Gus' classmate, Anwar Thornton, a little differently. "I didn't expect so many people to be here," he said. "The way it changed me is to not want to waste. If you waste stuff, it can't go to somebody else."

The people who work for Housing Forward acknowledged that their perspective on life is affected greatly by working with the homeless. Hannah Hartman, an outreach worker, said, "There are times when I get off work, and I go home and I just want to hug my kids, especially when I hear clients talk about their children whom they sometimes haven't seen for 10 years."

Chelsea Dare, a case manager for permanent supportive housing with Housing Forward, said, "My job is a little more hopeful because I'm working with people who are transitioning from homelessness into their own home. I work with people who have so little and they are appreciative of what they have. I've learned to appreciate being able to cook. I have a stove with a pot and a plate and a refrigerator, the good simple things you don't have when you don't have a home."

Tiffani Gardner works in Housing Forward's homeless prevention department. 

"Doing that every day," she said, "makes me realize there's such a thin line between being housed and being homeless. This summer I was teaching life skills classes. I listened to clients' stories, but I was able to open up and share some of my own stories, some things I've gone through. And my opening up allowed them to do the same. A lot of times they just want companionship, someone to talk to who will listen. Sometimes it's not even about can you give me food or loose change, just someone to take the time to sit down with me and talk with me."

Romiesha Tucker, the employment readiness coordinator, said, "My work is not all sad. I'm extremely happy when one of the homeless clients get a job and other things begin to fall into place. They did most of the work, but I was a part of it."

 "I'm grateful that we are able to build relationships with clients," said Armando Smith, director of operations and client services. "Seeing the difference we make in clients' lives is rewarding. Because we do a good job, they trust us."

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