Shelter volunteers see homelessness has a face
When you volunteer to help the homeless, their problems are no longer an abstraction, says a local clergyman who knows from experience. “You’re far more sympathetic to people on the streets who look rundown, exhausted,” says Father Joseph Carver.
Special to The Seattle Times
Faith & Values
“That was the hardest thing I had to do in the years that I was volunteering at the St. Martin de Porres homeless shelter,” Father Joseph Carver, S.J., recalled when I interviewed him.
At the time, he was a volunteer at St. Joseph’s Catholic Parish, but at night he frequently volunteered at the shelter. “The men would have a shower and a hot meal, but then I had to take them in a van back onto the streets and tell them to ‘get out’ because we didn’t have enough room for them to stay overnight in the shelter. Often it was excruciatingly cold. It was the worst job by far — far worse than lancing boils or cleaning up the bathrooms.
“I recall more than one night driving down the (Alaskan Way) Viaduct after work and asking myself, ‘Can I do this one more night? Which way am I going to turn?’ But I knew that if I was going to follow Christ, if I was going to live the Gospel, I had only one choice, and I would drive once more to the shelter.”
“During the Reagan era,” Carver explained, “the deinstitutionalization of people with mental illness meant that many more people ended up on the streets. Mental-health resources were stripped from communities.”
“We tried to get the City Council to open up spaces, like the public library,” he commented, “but they weren’t willing at that time.”
So around 1993-1994, Carver and other religious leaders, mentored by Craig Rennebohm, founder of the mental-health chaplaincy, worked to encourage churches to open up space for the homeless. The churches in the Central Area stepped forward. “We had a limit of 15 to 20 at each place, which made it manageable. We provided a roof, a warm place, mats on the floor, a bathroom, a breakfast and then sent them off in the morning with a packed lunch.”
The outreach also had a transformative effect on the volunteers. Carver explained, “You have a whole different relationship to someone who you can call by name and with whom you’ve slept alongside on mats in a church hall. Homelessness takes on a face; it’s no longer an abstraction. You’re far more sympathetic to people on the streets who look rundown, exhausted.”
Today the churches continue the outreach through the harsh winter months. During last year’s annual count of homeless (Jan. 25, 2013) at least 2,736 men, women and children were without shelter.
In the years that followed, Carver joined the Jesuits and, in his various assignments as a Jesuit, persuaded churches in San Francisco; Missoula, Mont.; and Philadelphia to provide similar shelter for the seemingly inevitable overflow of the homeless. Today Father Carver is the founding president of Nativity School, a new Seattle middle school sponsored by the Jesuits, located at Our Lady of Mount Virgin Catholic parish, for at-risk students.
Father Carver’s example underscores the recent exhortations of Pope Francis, who addresses the disgraceful level of poverty in the world. “How can it be,” he asks, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?”
The pope tellingly says, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
The main point, often overlooked, about the incarnation of Jesus, is that God entered the world and became flesh and transformed the whole of humanity. Each person, including those huddled under the freeways, is Jesus inviting us to love.
The example of hundreds of volunteers, and especially the staff at shelters like St. Martin de Porres, provide a concrete, living witness to a healthier, more engaged, Gospel-inspired church.
The Rev. Patrick J. Howell, S.J, is professor of pastoral theology at Seattle University. Readers may send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About The Rev. Patrick Howell, S.J.
The Rev. Patrick Howell, S.J., is vice president for mission and ministry at Seattle University.